Clarification of open records law backed

State officials plan agency guidelines

September 08, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

FLINTSTONE - State and local officials who frequently balk at letting citizens inspect government records need to be taught to comply with Maryland's public information law, an assistant attorney general told a press industry group yesterday.

Reacting to a recent survey that found officials routinely deny requests for arrest records, school violence reports and other public documents, Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz offered to help educate state and local agencies on how to follow the law more closely.

He also offered to support legislation to tweak the law by clarifying it or making minor changes but advised against trying to overhaul it.

"Part of the problem here was a lack of knowledge about the Public Information Act," Schwartz told members of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association. The group met at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort.

A statewide survey by 20 Maryland newspapers - The Sun was not among them - found that state and local agencies granted requests for six specific types of government records half the time. Just one out of four documents requested was provided promptly.

In addition to arrest records and school violence reports, the documents sought by the papers were driving records, police chief expenses, school superintendents' contracts and nursing home inspection reports.

Schwartz said he believes government agencies' failure to release such records betrayed a lack of awareness or understanding of the public information law rather than willful disobedience.

To address that ignorance, he said, the attorney general's office plans to issue revised guidelines in the next two months clarifying how state and local government employees should comply with Maryland's open-meetings and public-records laws.

In addition to distributing updated guidelines, the attorney general's office will provide training for state agencies, Schwartz said. Similar training will be offered to county and municipal governments, he said, but the state cannot compel them to take advantage of it.

Schwartz said the survey demonstrated the need to clarify the public-records law. He said it should spell out that arrest records should be made available. Despite a longstanding attorney general's opinion to that effect, the majority of police and sheriff's departments denied requests to see a list of who had been arrested that day or the day before.

But Schwartz cautioned that there could be political resistance to a major overhaul of the law, which he noted is riddled with exemptions allowing officials to withhold from the public more than 50 kinds of government records.

"This is a law ... as much about keeping records from the public as about allowing public access," he said. Eliminating or paring those exemptions - inserted to protect privacy or sensitive legal matters - would be difficult to do, he said.

His comments disappointed some in the association.

"He was not as tough as he could have been, but it's a good start," said Jim Donahue, the group's executive director.

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