Open Access To Information Is A Right, Not A Privilege


January 06, 1991|By Edward H. Shur

Why is it that getting information from some municipal governments is like pulling teeth? Two cases in point:

* The Taneytown Council refused to provide line-item details on its budget last spring.

The state Public Records Law clearly places most official documents -- except for a few items, such as personnel files -- in the public domain. City Attorney Thomas F. Stansfield refused to release the information, saying he didn't feel it is public record.

He said anyone who wants information should file a written request and wait up to the 30 days allowed under law for a reply. The council will decide "what is and is not public," Stansfield said.

So on May 21, we filed a formal, written request under state law, seeking the information. On June 5, City Manager Neal Powell wrote back that the council hadreleased general information and that he hoped that would suffice. It didn't, because no details were provided.

We tried phone calls back and forth to no avail.

On Aug. 13, we made a second written request for the details. Nine days later, Stansfield wrote that we must"provide a greater itemization of precisely what it is you wish to inspect . . . and perhaps there will be no problem getting it togetherfor inspection."

By that time, the city had long since adopted its budget and the information -- if we ever could have gotten it -- was old. Stansfield had taken three months and still not provided information that any citizen is entitled to see under the law.

* The Mount Airy Council, which created the first-ever post of town planner last year, refused to disclose the person's salary, which also clearlyis public record.

And that was after months of promoting the hiring of a planner as a means of significantly cutting town expenditures. We wrote a big story on the new planner and wanted to illustrate just how much money taxpayers would be saving.

Mayor Gerald R. Johnson Jr. told us it was none of our business and if we pressed the issue it could "hurt our relationship with the town."

On Dec. 12, the newspaper filed a Freedom of Information request for the salary. Ninedays later, the mayor replied.

But did his letter contain the information -- literally one number? No. His two-sentence letter said that we would "be getting the information you requested by the end of January. I hope this is satisfactory."

Quite frankly, it isn't, anymore than Stansfield's delaying tactics were.

The story about theplanner has long since been published.

Why is it that so many people, once elected to office, feel the taxpayers' business is only what the officials decide it should be?

And why the delaying tactics,if not to just annoy us? Why couldn't Johnson have told us the number in the first place, or, at the very least, included it in his Dec. 21 letter?

Why can't more municipalities follow the example of former Manchester Mayor Elmer C. Lippy Jr., under whom town business wasmade open to just about anybody who asked?

Ironically, Manchesteris exploring the possibility of guidelines clarifying the way the public is allowed to inspect documents.

Carroll's other municipalities would do well to follow Manchester's lead. Even though any set of rules merely would mirror state law, they would serve to inform officials, town employees and the public of those laws.

Then all they'd have to do is follow them.

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