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New board would mediate Md. public records disputes

ANNAPOLIS — A bill to update Maryland’s Public Information Act of 1970 could help temper sometimes-bitter disputes between the public and public servants, and — advocates hope — make the Free State more transparent.

Among the bill’s chief goals are the creation of a State Public Information Act Compliance Board and an ombudsman-type position.

‘What we’re really trying to do is update a 45-year-old statute so it works for the 21st century,’ said the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery County.

Originally proposed as a three-member board appointed by the governor, an additional two positions have been suggested. One person would be required to be a member of the Maryland State Bar Association, and another would be a member of the nonprofit community. There would also be a representative of the government agencies that receive information requests.

The purpose of the board would be to handle fee disputes, Raskin said.

“There’s always two sides to every case,” he said. “But oftentimes, the citizens feel they’re being stonewalled, they’re being derailed, they’re being sandbagged. And oftentimes, the government officials feel like they’re being beset upon, imposed upon, and harassed and harangued.”

The ombudsman position, Raskin said, could help narrow down information requests so that a government agency isn’t filling an overly broad request. At the same time, the person would ensure the government is being responsive to those seeking information.

LaVita Tuff, a policy analyst with the national Sunlight Foundation, said nearly 20 states have some kind of compliance board, ombudsman or third-party mediator. States with these mediators “do get a better grade when it comes to public access to information,” she said, because the board “creates a level of transparency, creates a level of accountability. It provides for the necessary oversight in public records.”

Virginia has an advisory council. While it does not have authority to mediate disputes, it can issue opinions and answer questions from citizens and government agencies.

(Disclosure: Daily Record Editor Thomas Baden Jr. has testified in behalf of Raskin’s bill.)

Utah has a State Records Committee that can serve as an appeals board for records disputes. Indiana’s public access counselor can offer open-records advice to government employees and members of the public. In Hawaii, the Office of Information Practices has an attorney-of-the-day service to offer advice on public information laws.

Raskin said the goal in creating the board is to foster a culture of cooperation, but critics have testified recently that not all difficulties spring from conflicts between a requester and a government agency.

Les Knapp Jr., legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties, said the number of public information requests is increasing, with some being far-reaching or ‘fishing expeditions.’ Even those that are more focused can take time and money to fulfill, he said, such as having attorneys review the information before it is sent out.

Candace Donoho, director of governmental relations for the Maryland Municipal League, said in the town of Laytonsville in Montgomery County, one request “virtually brought Town Hall to a standstill” because there was only one employee working there.

The bill has drawn criticism from the agricultural industry for a requirement that the Maryland Department of Agriculture keep a summary of reports that show how the waste from poultry farms and other caged-animal feeding operations is handled. Opponents say it would be easy to identify a farm’s address and the reports would reveal private business plans.

Other bills filed this session also aim to increase public access to information, including legislation to mandate public agendas for open meetings and to require agencies to make available contact information for an employee who handles public records requests.