Records bills withdrawn in Assembly

Sponsor takes action after heavy opposition at first House hearing

`A complete misread '

Proponents sought public access law fix

more study suggested

March 27, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

In the face of stiff opposition, an effort by the press and government officials to clarify Maryland's public-records law was withdrawn from the General Assembly yesterday, hours after its initial House of Delegates hearing.

The bills had sought to fix existing laws to end some common abuses and to create a task force on whether the state needs a public information ombudsman to mediate complaints. The legislation was prompted by a newspaper group survey last summer showing that bureaucrats across Maryland were routinely denying citizens access to public records.

But almost two dozen opponents argued the measures could end up making it easier for government officials to reject requests for records -- prompting the sponsor of the two bills to quickly back off and call for more study.

"I think it's clear this bill needs more study," said Del. John A. Hurson, the House Majority leader and a Montgomery County Democrat. "All of the groups need to get together and talk more."

Hurson's decision disappointed media advocates who had been working on the bills for months, and they said they were blindsided by the sudden opposition. They promised to follow up with more study and return in 2002.

The measures had been crafted by the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association, the Maryland Municipal League, the Maryland Association of Counties and the state attorney general's office. They had been introduced by Hurson at the request of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

"We think these bills are ready to go," said James E. Donahue, executive director of the press group, which represents more than 160 newspapers. "This is consensus legislation. We took the steps that Speaker Taylor suggested we take."

"It makes no substantive changes at all, ... and we think there was a complete misread by the opponents of what these bills do," Donahue said.

During yesterday morning's hearing before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, opponents argued that the bills would end up restricting access by giving government bureaucrats more discretion to keep records from the public.

"Though it may not be intended, the net effect of this bill will be to make the access more restrictive," said Kim Burns, a lobbyist representing the Maryland Investigators and Security Association Inc.

Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist representing two credit and information companies, argued that changes to Maryland's 30-year-old public information laws should not be proposed without the input of businesses that rely on such records.

"There are people that use these records in the mercantile and business communities," Bereano told the committee. "We've not been consulted. We've not been invited."

One state agency also opposed the bills. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene testified that the proposed changes would create too much bureaucracy in dealing with disputes over public records.

"It seems like a draconian response to the two or three situations when the department disagrees [with the media)," said Liza Solomon, director of the department's AIDS Administration.

Supporters of the two bills said the proposed changes to the public information laws would do little more than clarify existing legislation and place the current best practices into law. The biggest change is removing some of the more severe penalties tied to violating the laws, making the punishment more in line with violations of the state's open meetings laws.

`Some confusing points'

"There are some confusing points that need clarifying," said Tom Marquardt, chairman of the press association's freedom of information subcommittee and managing editor of the Annapolis Capital. "If something is a public record year after year, this would establish that."

Much of yesterday's strong opposition stems from a proposal last fall by a committee of the Maryland judiciary to limit public access to computerized criminal court records.

Media, businesses and private investigators strongly criticized the proposal, and it was withdrawn -- resulting in a task force to review public records access in the courts. Neither opponents nor supporters of the two House bills were sure yesterday whether the measures would apply to court records.

The House speaker had become interested in ensuring access to public records after last summer's survey by the press association found that only half the requests to see public documents were granted by state and local government offices in Baltimore and all 23 counties.

Testing access to records

Employees from 20 newspapers asked to see records on arrests, driving violations, nursing home inspections, school violence, police chief expenses and school superintendents' employment.

The newspapers' test also found that people asking to see public records often are required to show identification or state their reasons for wanting to inspect government documents -- demands that are generally against the law. (The Sun did not participate in the test but reported its results.)

The press association and the government groups sponsoring the legislation have held a series of seminars since last summer's survey to educate bureaucrats about their public records responsibilities.

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