Public records access policies prompt dispute

Residents say new rules hinder participation

`Everyone has a different story'

Change needed to protect planning files, county says

Anne Arundel

January 05, 2003|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

County planning officials say they were only trying to streamline - and safeguard - access to public files on development projects, building permits and zoning changes.

But recent revisions to Anne Arundel County's policy on access to those files have led some residents to complain that bureaucrats have further obfuscated already confusing guidelines on who may see a file and when.

"They seem to have come up with another obstacle to public participation in land use," said Stephen Nevas, vice president of the Cape St. John Citizens Association Inc., who recently heard two versions of the public access policy from two county planners.

"We are not quite sure what is going on at this point," Nevas said. "It's like a Keystone Kops drill. Everyone has a different story."

County officials said last week that they altered the public access policy - requiring written request and limited review with a planner present - to protect the integrity of planning files and provide better customer service.

Recently, important documents have disappeared from some planning files, said Land Use Officer Robert L. Walker.

"There have been some occasions when we have looked for a document and it wasn't in the file," Walker said, adding that the county's building boom has resulted in a steep increase in requests to review files.

He said the revision was needed to track which files were being reviewed and by whom.

Walker said that not everyone would be required to request a file in writing or sit with a planner while reviewing it.

For example, homeowners wishing to review permits for their own home improvement project would be granted files immediately.

"This should not be seen as an attempt by the county to curtail access to public files," Walker said. "This is just a way to better serve the public."

But many residents say they are confused about what they need to do to get access to files.

Some say the rules are applied haphazardly and that they change, sometimes daily.

Recently, members of the Cape St. John homeowners group were informed by a county planner that they would have to file a written request, wait up to 10 days to set up an appointment with a county planner and limit their review to a half-hour.

When members complained, they were told by the same county planner that the policy had been further revised to allow up to two hours of review time.

A few days later, yet another planner told the group that there was no new policy, but that guidelines implemented in October 2001 were still in place.

October 2001 policy

The October 2001 policy, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, doesn't limit the amount of time an individual may take to review a file or require the presence of a county planner.

That back-and-forth by county planners has left some residents feeling dizzy - and distressed.

"This is going to make it even more difficult," said Donald Yeskey, president of the Generals Highway Council of Civic Associations.

"It places all the burden on the resident to understand what the policy is."

County Council members also have been baffled by recent policy changes. They learned early last month that they also would have to file written requests to review files.

"I don't understand why they are doing all of this," said council member Barbara D. Samorajczyk, of Annapolis Neck, who has had her share of battles with the Office of Planning and Zoning over access to files.

"It makes it very difficult to do your constituent service."

Council member Pamela G. Beidle, a Democrat from Linthicum, said she was surprised to learn that she would have to fill out a form to review files. She said that if it helps officials keep track of documents, then so be it.

"That makes some sense," Beidle said of the reasoning behind the policy change.

County Attorney Linda M. Schuett said her office recently had helped write an umbrella policy regarding public access to county files for all county offices.

`No conflict'

She said that the policy outlined by planning officials - including a time limit - did not violate state law or local guidelines.

"Generally speaking, we have advised all departments not to let original documents out of their sight," Schuett said. "I see no conflict."

Local residents and others, including watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, disagree with Schuett.

"This will have a chilling effect on the public's ability to know what is going on," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause, which is based in Annapolis.

Nevas, of the Cape St. John homeowners group, called the county's policies "vindictive."

He said they were aimed at keeping certain community groups and elected officials from gaining equal access to public documents.

"The state's public records law begins with the presumption that the public should be allowed to access files without any delay," Nevas said. "Period."

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