Legislature Moving Toward Public Information Act Reforms

By Anjali Shastry

ANNAPOLIS—Stricter enforcement of the Maryland Public Information Act might be on the way with a bill establishing a panel to oversee fees state agencies charge to respond to requests for information.

The panel would consist of five Marylanders, at least one of whom is a lawyer, who apply for the position and are appointed by the governor.

The volunteer board would handle citizen or journalist complaints about overcharging if an agency says the information is available at what the requestor feels is an exorbitant price.

The bill also provides for an ombudsman who would ensure that the Public Information Act is being followed—including timeliness of responses—by every agency that receives a request.

“The current law allows for so much flexibility and vagueness,” bill sponsor Delegate Bonnie Cullison, D-Montgomery, said during a House committee hearing Tuesday.

There was too much inconsistency—for example, varying costs for similar information—among the different agencies, she said.

Journalists are not the only people who use the Public Information Act regularly, said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association.

“We put in a fair amount of research into understanding how ombudspeople and compliance work in other states and what we found was that citizens by far file the most complaints with ombudsmen,” Snyder said.

“This is not just for the media, but for the larger public.”

Zenita Wickham Hurley, who focuses on civil rights and legislative affairs for Attorney General Brian Frosh, said she was optimistic that the bill will pass because it was carefully crafted, and because Frosh supports it.

“The stakeholders have been great in terms of recognizing the concerns that custodians had, that we had, that the Attorney General had, and we addressed all of these concerns,” Hurley said.

The panel would review requests based on current law, which requires state agencies to respond to a request within 10 working days, or reply with how long it will take. The agency can also charge a fee—for staff time gathering the information and for materials.

This bill, which was cross-filed in the Senate by Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, is one of four public information reforms introduced to the legislature this session.

The other three would: mandate that state agencies publicize what types of public records they have available; shield Maryland reporters from having to reveal their confidential sources under oath in other states; and require that agencies name their public information officer.

“But the Public Information Act bill, that really moves the process forward by a long shot,” Snyder said. “It’s the first time the Public Information Act has been truly updated in 45 years. People’s advocacy on this issue is truly critical.”

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