ANNAPOLIS – House leaders introduced legislation Thursday to clarify Maryland’s open records law and to create a task force to study how to make public documents more accessible, after a media study turned up numerous problems with agency compliance.
The House of Delegates voted to allow the bill to be introduced after last month’s deadline after sponsor Delegate John Adams Hurson, D-Montgomery, discussed the results of a study by the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association.
The MDDC study revealed 50 percent of the public’s requests for public documents are denied. The Maryland Public Information Act was adopted in 1970 opening all records issued by or received by public bodies on all levels of government.
“It found that the open records law didn’t work very well,” said Hurson.
The bill would work to give the public better access to public documents, something James Donahue, press association executive director, said doesn’t affect journalists alone.
“A free and open government is the foundation of our society so we have to be sure . . . to leave this information open,” Donahue said. “You don’t do government in secrecy. This information belongs to the people, so they should have access to this information.”
The task force would look at ways to resolve disputes, which are now settled in court.
The association worked with people on all sides of the issue, collaborating with Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League.
The group agreed to a bill that won’t change existing law, but would emphasize the aspects of current law for public officials.
“The atmosphere isn’t right to make dramatic changes,” said Tom Marquardt, managing editor of the Annapolis Capital and chairman of the committee that conducted the study. “We’ve worked hard to come up with language that really just clarifies the law.”
Government officials just don’t understand what is public information, he said. The bill would clarify those elements and dispel the confusion, he said.
Although James Peck, a director at the Maryland Municipal League, said he didn’t see any necessity for the legislation since it only “reinstates existing law,” he also stressed his support.
“We are taking special steps to educate our folks on the requirements of that law,” Peck said. “We’re working with the press association.”
And because “everyone is in agreement,” Donahue hopes the legislation will more easily pass.
Fourteen states have done similar studies leading to legislation. For instance, in Illinois, where public information was denied 25 percent of the time, the Senate is now considering legislation to give the Attorney General and local prosecutors the authority to overrule access denials.
In Indiana, the governor ordered a public access counselor be appointed to take complaints.
But without these legislative efforts in Maryland, the study shows that requests for public documents, including school violence reports and routine police arrest logs, are shot down three out of four times. And sheriff and police departments restricted access more than other agencies, denying access 74 percent of the time.
That should change with this bill, said Marquardt.
“This bill will spell out (to public officials) response time, request for identity, and what can be disclosed.”