ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s public records laws need to be beefed up to ensure that “what’s reasonably accessible is given to us,” media representatives told a House committee Thursday.
They were there to support a bill that would open public employees’ pension records and another bill that would include electronic records in the open-records law and prevent the state from charging exorbitant prices for documents.
“All we’re trying to do is codify (existing regulations) and make it very clear that what’s reasonably accessible is given to us,” said Tom Marquardt, managing editor of The (Annapolis) Capital.
He was joined by representatives of The Washington Post and the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. (MDCC) Press Association in a hearing before the House Commerce and Government Affairs Committee.
There was relatively little opposition, but the State Retirement Agency and the Maryland Retired Teachers Association raised concerns about the pension records bill. It would broaden the law that now offers access to the pension records of elected and appointed officials.
Howard Pleines, of the State Retirement Agency, said existing law already provides access to pension information for those officials, allaying fears that they could inflate their pensions in secret.
But Marquardt said the current law is unworkable because it prevents access to that part of an official’s pension that came from his or her individual contributions. Because agencies are not able to figure out what portion came from individual contributions, he said, the records are essentially closed.
If you ask the county government for a person’s pension records, Marquardt said, “They will say, `We can’t separate it. All we can get is the total amount and that’s not open to the public.'”
Government agencies can also get around public access by refusing to turn over computerized information or by charging excessive rates for the records, said James E. Donahue, executive director of the press association.
Some agencies will not release records in computerized formats, even though the technology already exists, until directed to do so by the legislature, Donahue said.
“We believe it is in the public’s interest to release it in electronic form,” he added.
The electronic records bill, which is patterned after the federal Electronic Freedom of Information Act, would specifically direct agencies to release computer information where possible. It would also strictly limit fees the agencies can charge.
The bill was also supported by the state police and the Department of Environment, with technical amendments proposed by the Department of Budget and Management.