ANNAPOLIS – A proposal exempting building records from Maryland’s public information act in the name of national security has set real estate groups and state agencies at odds with the media.
Under the legislation – requested by the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington – public officials could deny access to blueprints, schematics or other records “if a custodian believes that inspection . . . would be contrary to the public interest.”
The bill complements a law passed last year protecting information about public buildings, and has only become more necessary since war started in Iraq, said Delegate Virginia Clagett, D-Anne Arundel, a bill sponsor.
Following Sept. 11, 2001, the government issued warnings that al-Qaida would try and hit “soft targets” – including apartment and office buildings, said Barbara Vassallo, the National Apartment Association’s vice president for state and local policy.
“The soft target threat . . . could have meant they had (biological or chemical weapons) they were going to put into the ventilation (system)” Vassallo said. “Why protect public buildings when there are private buildings that are larger and house more residents?”
Access to information on emergency plans and sensitive systems like water treatment and ventilation systems at federal and state facilities is already limited, and it makes sense to expand those restrictions to the private sector, said Col. Donald Biedenback, chief of police for the Department of General Services.
“Law enforcement constantly feels that information is too readily available,” Biedenback said.
But the bill was too restrictive – only “partly good,” said Carol Melamed, vice president for governmental affairs for The Washington Post.
“Newspapers certainly understand the safety need,” Melamed said. “The problem is we thought the bill . . .was too blunt an instrument and needed to be brought into proper balance.”
At the bill’s Senate committee hearing, media groups submitted an amendment to ease access to information on building inspections and code enforcement – information that directly impacts the day-to-day safety of building occupants and a key yardstick for measuring government performance, she said.
Whether or not building inspection records would fall under the bill’s restrictions, is unclear, and would be left up to the record holder, said Lesa Hoover, vice president of governmental affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.
However, the association opposes the media amendments to the bill, she said.
But inspection records don’t contain the sort of information this bill is meant to protect – “I don’t see necessarily how that would give away the store,” said Clagett.
The bill, including amendments easing, but not eliminating, barriers to obtaining inspection records and buildings that had already suffered a catastrophe, received a favorable report from the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Thursday evening. The House Health and Government Operations Committee heard its version of the bill on Tuesday, but has taken no action yet.