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Public records access audit yields disappointing results

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Public records access audit yields disappointing results

  • A recent freedom of information audit of Maryland state agencies, conducted by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, yielded a 60 percent rate of compliance.

Nov. 24, 2003 — Less than two thirds of state agencies in Maryland follow state laws regarding public information access, a recent study found.

The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association’s Freedom of Information Subcommittee, a group that monitors media access to public records and open meetings, conducted a study in August testing state agencies’ compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act. Results were released last week.

The MDDC’s study, Access Maryland 2003, consisted of 25 requests for public records from 15 different state agencies, such as the Motor Vehicle Administration, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, and county health departments. Of the 25 records requested, only 15 were obtained within the 30 days provided by law — a 60 percent success rate.

“I think it ought to be 100 percent, frankly,” said Tom Marquardt, editor of The (Annapolis) Capital and chairman of the FOI subcommittee. “I don’t think anybody was trying to avoid the law or intentionally allude the law. It’s just a case of ignorance.

“There are a lot of documents out there that the public should have easy access to without any intimidation from somebody wearing a badge or a gun,” he added.

Auditors sought documents an average citizen might have an interest in obtaining, such as property tax reports, restaurant inspections and death certificates. Although the study used reporters from MDDC member newspapers, the reporters identified themselves solely as citizens and contacted the front desk of each agency, just as an average citizen would.

In 11 instances, auditors were asked who they were. In seven instances, they were asked why they wanted the records, and in five instances they were asked who their employers were. In one case, a government employee told an auditor that simply wanting a public document was not a good enough reason for it to be provided.

The Maryland Public Information Act does not require people to say who they are or why they want the records they are trying to obtain.

The best responses from the audit came from property tax assessment offices, which responded immediately to requests and gave records the same day. The worst responses came from the state vehicle association and Maryland Occupation, Safety and Health. One request for restaurant inspections records in Allegany County took 60 days to fill, and a request for the most recent safety inspection of the Maryland Bay Bridge did not come until Nov. 6, well after the study was finished.

Despite some negative findings, the audit has led to positive action. As a result of the audit, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said his office will start new FOI Act training for state agencies, according to a Nov. 19 story in the (Westminster) Carroll County Times.

“We’ve made recommendations and we’ll follow through with our own training,” Curran said, “and we’ll offer to do training at each of the local agencies with . . . the people who will be getting these public record requests.”

AS

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