ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill before the end of its legislative session Monday night that provides reform of the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) which advocates of the bill say will provide greater transparency and access to public information. On April 10, three days before the last day of this year’s […]
ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill before the end of its legislative session Monday night that provides reform of the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) which advocates of the bill say will provide greater transparency and access to public information.
On April 10, three days before the last day of this year’s legislative session, the amended Senate Bill 695 unanimously passed the House of Delegates after passing in the Senate on March 24.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-20), passed the House 138-0 and will create a state Public Information Act compliance board. It will also create a public access ombudsman position in the Attorney General’s Office. The bill passed both chambers unanimously on Monday night after a conference committee amended the bill.
Both additions to the law, Raskin said, will improve the process of gaining access to public information.
“This is an awesome victory for public transparency and good government,” Raskin said. “I’m thrilled the legislation passed unanimously—in the House and in the Senate—and we have succeeded in amending Maryland’s Public Information Act for the first time in four decades to improve the public’s access to public records.”
The compliance board will include five members – a combination involving an attorney, a nonprofit representative and someone who has previously been a custodian of public information. Board members, appointed by the governor, will serve three-year terms and may not serve more than two terms.
According to the bill, the board will review complaints of charges of more than $350 and mandate custodians to lessen the fee if it determines the fees are unreasonable.
The board will also present an annual report of all its actions to the governor and the General Assembly by Oct. 1 for an audit.
According to the bill, the ombudsman, who the attorney general has the power to appoint, will serve a four-year term and “make reasonable attempts to resolve disputes between applicants and custodians” regarding public information requests.
According to the bill, disputes include:
• The custodian’s application of an exemption
• Redactions of information
• Failure by a custodian to produce records in a timely manner or to disclose all records relevant to the request
• Overly broad requests of public records
• The amount of time a custodian needs, given available staff and resources, to produce public records
• A request for or denial of a fee waiver
• Repetitive or redundant requests from an applicant
The bill continues to allow agencies up to 30 days to provide public records, but requires custodians to let the requestor know if it will take more than 10 days to produce the records. If it will take more than 10 days to provide the information, the custodian must explain the reason for the delay.
“We always have to remind ourselves the government works for the people and not the other way around,” Raskin said.
On Dec. 31, 2016, the Office of the Attorney General must report back to the governor how the bill is working and what else can be done to reform the act, according to the bill.
Attorney General Brian Frosh said he was happy to see the bill pass.
“My office worked hard on this legislation, because access to information has long been a priority of mine. We all know that Maryland can do better to make sure the public, as well as the media, have ready access to legally available information. The best government is an open government, and this legislation is a good step in the direction of more openness.”
The General Assembly approved another related bill that would require state agencies to allocate one representative in charge of completing PIA requests. Senate Bill 862, sponsored by Sen. Ronald Young (D-3), passed the third reading in the House 138-0 on Friday.
Raskin said this bill will ultimately meet the goal to make documents publicly available while ensuring there is no extra burden placed on employees who retrieve the documents.
“This information is supposed to be available to citizens, nonprofits, the media – whoever is looking at it – and (the bill) is taking steps to ensure that access is there,” said Rebecca Snyder, the Maryland Delaware D.C. (MDDC) Press Association executive director.
In Maryland, Snyder said, it has been increasingly difficult for people to get access to public information for both media workers and nonprofit organization members. Citizens can now view this information as completely open.
Although the bill underwent several revisions, consensus remains that the bill will help provide more transparency.
“Some people see this as a media issue, but it’s so much more than that,” Snyder said. “It’s a huge step forward.”
MDDC, along with several groups in the state that came together as a coalition, has been working diligently to advocate for this bill. The Marylanders for Open Government coalition formed this year, which is a network of about 30 organizations that have been pushing for changes to the MPIA.
Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, whose organization is part of the coalition, said the existing 45-year-old law needs this reform.
“It’s a tremendous step forward,” Bevan-Dangel said. “This is something that we’ve seen as a huge barrier for citizens, for journalists, for everyday people to find out what the government’s doing.”
Bevan-Dangel said though different groups looked at different parts of the problem with the MPIA for years – such as some people trying to fix the fee discrepancy or looking into denials – no one took the time to fully come together to achieve cohesive reform.
“For the first time ever, we’ll have oversight with these public information act requests,” she said. “And that alone … is going to make a real culture change in the state.”
Bevan-Dangel said the bill’s passage is an opportunity to review how this goes and to further analyze later whether there needs to be more reform. Bevan-Dangel said there are more problems with government transparency, such as the issue behind clarifying exemptions.
“It’s a great day for good government in Maryland,” Raskin said. “Democracy depends on the public having access to its own documents.”