... Keep port records open

Dangerous: Bill restricting access to port records threatens businesses as well as the democratic process.

March 19, 2002

IN THE BROADEST sense, closing government records invites a fatal erosion of democracy. If citizens are denied access, officials could hide incompetence as well as malfeasance.

It's far more than abstract hand-wringing.

A Baltimore company's ability to examine a lease between one of its competitors and the Maryland Port Administration resulted in a lawsuit that may allow the company to recover millions of dollars in penalties owed as the result of unfair terms granted to a competitor. Had it been unable to see the lease, Ceres Marine Terminal might not have been able to confirm suspicions that one of its competitors got a better deal.

Though it says the Ceres case is not its motivation, the Maryland Port Administration wants to change the public information act to put more records off-limits.

Already passed by the House of Delegates, the proposal must be turned back in the Senate.

The goal is to deny a complainant such as Ceres the right to take its appeal for access to records to court. Opposing such challenges, the port says, is expensive and time consuming.

But democracies must always value fairness over efficiency.

The port administration also says it is asking for a more restrictive law to hide its marketing strategy from competing ports.

Officials concede that while their bill is aimed at other ports, the revised records law might prevent inspection by private individuals or companies as well. The people of Maryland can't simply trust the port administration's negotiators to do their best in the public interest. It's a system of law and process, not of individuals.

If the port wished to deny access during negotiations, its argument would have more, but still not compelling, legitimacy. The price of secrecy is far too high - and, on the record so far, not even necessary. No damaging competitive breaches have occurred, and current law provides for commercial or trade secret confidentiality.

The Assembly must kill this over-reaching, dangerous legislation as soon as it can. If that doesn't happen, the governor must waste no time vetoing it.

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