MTA bill's scope eyed

Safeguarding privacy could deny public access to all records

Language `way too broad'

Sponsor of measure says he will submit amendment soon

March 26, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Tucked at the bottom of a proposal before the General Assembly - one already approved by the House - is a paragraph some fear could block public access to nearly every record kept by the state Mass Transit Administration.

Most of House Bill 1105 aims to protect financial information, credit reports and similar records submitted when customers apply to use the electronic tolls run by a different agency, the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Then comes a paragraph that would deny public access to all records of "persons or vehicles" involving "the use or purchase of goods or services" on file at the Mass Transit Administration.

Watchdog groups that reviewed the wording said it rings alarm bells.

"That is way too broad," said Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington. "I can't imagine anything that wouldn't cover."

"The way that's written is really in violation of the Maryland public information law, I would think," said MTA Administrator Ronald L. Freeland when first questioned about the bill's wording.

Freeland later softened his remarks. He said he doubted the bill would violate state law, but he described it as unnecessarily broad and said the language should and would be rewritten.

"There was no attempt here to in any way restrict access to public records," he said. The bill is awaiting a Senate hearing.

Its sponsor, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said his intention was to extend the same privacy protections to future MTA customers who apply for the electronic "Smart Card" system being developed for bus, subway and train fares.

After questions surfaced about the scope of the bill, Rosenberg said he conferred with the attorney general's office and the MTA. He said he would submit an amendment within days.

"We agree that the language is too broad," Rosenberg said. "They're going to work with me on language that ... goes to the kinds of things it was intended to protect."

Even so, MTA chief counsel Irwin M. Brown said he believes there is little chance that the original wording would have closed records other than those Rosenberg intended. It wouldn't apply to contracts, he said, or be used to block access to demographic and other records that could be useful for analyzing performance and identifying trends.

But that interpretation could later be a point of dispute, others say.

"Anytime you come up with a law that makes information a government uses confidential, you ought to be absolutely certain it is so narrow that it covers only that specific information," said Daugherty of the Reporters Committee.

Under federal law, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service may deny access to income tax return information, even if the taxpayer remains anonymous.

"It means we can't monitor the IRS in the way we can monitor other agencies," Daugherty said. "I think it's extremely important that someone go back and rewrite a bill like this."

"The very fact that there's this conversation says there could be confusion," said James Donahue, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which represents more than 160 newspapers.

"If you're trying to limit access to computer toll-collection records, there's a hell of a lot you can do to make sure it's limited to that," said Baltimore attorney James J. Doyle Jr., the group's lobbyist.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

11 a.m. House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, hearing on bills to improve access to public records, Room 140, Lowe House Office Building.

Noon House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

3 p.m. Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, subcommittee report on capital budget, 3 West, Miller Senate Office Building.

7 p.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

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