Advocates for a now-canceled transit system in Baltimore are accusing state transportation officials of not complying with open records laws and failing to provide documents they say will show how Gov. Larry Hogan and state Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn came to nix the Red Line.
The request, filed July 7 by 1,000 Friends of Maryland and Baltimore-based Citizens Planning and Housing Association and the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, remains unfulfilled even though it is outside the 30-day time frame allowed for such requests. A spokeswoman for the department said the agency takes such requests seriously but those claims ring hollow, according to advocates like Dru Schmidt-Perkins, president and chief executive officer of 1,000 Friends of Maryland.
“We feel like we’re being played,” Schmidt-Perkins said.
The groups said they requested reports, studies, emails and other correspondence and records that could help them understand the factors Hogan and Rahn took into account before announcing on June 25 that the state would no longer build the $2.9 billion, 14.1 mile Red Line light rail project that would run from east Baltimore to western Baltimore County.
Rahn, during his confirmation hearing earlier this year, and again in May told legislators and others that no decision had been made on the Red Line and that no review would be undertaken until he had completed work on the Purple Line project that runs between New Carrollton and Bethesda. A month later, Rahn and Hogan announced that the Baltimore project was off the table.
“The purpose of our request is to really see what was looked at and what was the analysis that was done on the Red Line,” Schmidt-Perkins said. “How could you, in a couple of weeks, investigate the Red Line and turn around and cancel it?”
Schmidt-Perkins said she and other advocates have grown irritated with what they believe is an effort to string them along by not being contacted about the request until the 30th day. They then agreed to accept documents subject to the request in chunks in an effort to help the agency. Then communications stopped after an attorney for the agency emailed to say officials would need until Aug. 26 because Rahn and others were in Ocean City for a county officials conference or were otherwise unavailable.
“They’re in violation of the law and have not provided any of the documents that should have given to us in short order,” she said.
The group took to social media in the last few days in an attempt to highlight what they see as a lack of response.
— 1000 Friends of MD (@1000FriendsofMD) August 17, 2015
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for Rahn and the department, said that a number of issues may have combined to delay the request, including vacations, Rahn’s attendance at the Maryland Association of Counties convention last week, and a change in attorneys who represent the agency as the request was being handled.
“The Public Information Act and transparency are something that’s a priority for the secretary,” Henson said. “We’re looking at how we can more efficiently handle Public Information Act requests. It’s something we’re looking at across the agency.”
Henson said that the agency has received “a lot of requests in the last several months. We get Public Information Act requests all the time.”
State law requires agencies to provide documents responsive to a request under the law within 30 days but allows for agencies to seek an additional 30 days if the requester agrees. Henson said the agency sought such an extension and received an agreement.
Schmidt-Perkins disagrees and said “the request” came in the form of a statement sent six days after the deadline passed. Emails between her and Chris Fontaine, an attorney for the agency, appear to back that claim.
“Unfortunately, I was unaware that the Secretary is unavailable as he is out of town this week attending the Maryland Association of Counties meeting in Ocean City and is scheduled to be out of the office until late next week,” Fontaine wrote in an Aug 12 email. “Based on the nature of your request the Secretary’s direct input is obviously essential in order to respond. I would think that MDOT would be able to provide a full response by August 26th. ”
Schmidt-Perkins said the request was not acceptable.
“We have been beyond fair and understanding but this is not reasonable,” she wrote in an email conversation she provided to The Daily Record.
But for member of the public seeking records, state law provides little in the way of leverage against agencies who drag their heels on requests, according to Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland Delaware DC Press Association.
“You’re really over a barrel if you want the information and you don’t have the time or money for a protracted lawsuit,” Snyder said.
The association was part of a coalition that successfully sought reforms to the state law during the last legislative session. Among those changers are the creation of a compliance board that will look at fees and an ombudsman who, Snyder said, might be able to encourage agencies to expedite requests. That law goes into effect in October.
Snyder said agencies need to focus on creating a process to handle requests.
“If you don’t have a process in place then it really says Public Information Act requests are not that important,” Snyder said.