State agencies faulted on information inquiries

Requests to government likely to fail 40% of time, press group's study shows

November 20, 2003|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Citizens seeking public information from Maryland government agencies are likely to be denied more than a third of the time, according to a study by a newspaper organization.

The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association sent people to 15 agencies to request 25 public records that might be of interest to citizens. The "auditors" did not receive 10 of the 25 records within the 30 days prescribed in the Maryland Public Information Act, according to the report.

Jim Donahue, executive director of the press association, said the results were especially disappointing because a similar audit of local and state agencies showed widespread compliance problems three years ago.

"What this audit shows is that 40 percent of the time, public officials aren't complying with the law," Donahue said.

State officials acknowledged that the report exposed problems with compliance. Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said "full and accurate disclosure" is a priority of the administration.

"We will certainly remind state agencies of that," Fawell said.

Robert N. McDonald, an authority on public information law in the attorney general's office, said he doesn't think the lapses outlined in the report were deliberate.

"The bottom line is we probably ought to get out there and do a little more training," he said.

In some cases, state agency representatives questioned the auditors' accuracy and methodology.

In at least one case involving the Maryland Lottery, the agency's record of the transaction contradicted the auditor's account. In another, the auditor attempted to obtain information about the travel of government officials without disclosing his name -- an approach that raised state police concerns.

"All I have are phone calls from an unidentified individual requesting security information about the people we protect," said Maj. Gregory Shipley, the state police spokesman.

The request sought records about the road travel of seven top state officials who are provided with state police drivers.

In that case, Ehrlich's office eventually agreed to provide logs for the governor and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele but missed the compliance deadline after notifying the auditor that processing the request would take more than 30 days. That information is expected to start going out tomorrow.

Overall, however, the audit provided considerable evidence of failure to comply with the public information law -- through misunderstanding of the law, bureaucratic bungling or poor customer service.

In one case, the requested information was available but the agency's public information liaison sent the request to the wrong office.

The auditors were mostly reporters at Maryland newspapers, but they approached the agencies in their capacities as private citizens because the public information law is intended to open government to individuals as well as the media. They sought information including teacher decertification records and restaurant inspection reports.

"The point here is that the public has the right of access to its information," said Donahue.

In one case, according to the audit, an employee at the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Towson denied a request for a publicly available driving record after pulling up a motorist's information and discovering that she is a state senator.

In another case, an MVA employee denied information while noting a nonexistent "Maryland Privacy Act."

MVA officials said that was one of three cases in which employees erred in handling information requests by the auditors -- twice by failing to disclose public information and once by providing such confidential information as the height, weight and home address of a state delegate.

Individuals are entitled to receive three years of driving record information about any motorist without explaining why they want it, according to McDonald.

However, they are not entitled to receive additional driver's license information without a legitimate law-enforcement purpose.

Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said Secretary Robert L. Flanagan had ordered the MVA to retrain its staff and to review procedures for complying with the public information law.

"He understands that public means public," Cahalan said.

He added that Flanagan, as a former elected official, was especially concerned about the refusal to release public information about a legislator.

"From his perspective, you want that record out there," Cahalan said.

The transportation department also failed to honor a request -- for a recent inspection report on the Bay Bridge -- within the 30 days permitted by law. Bryon Johnston, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, said the information was eventually provided but the deadline was missed because of "security concerns."

Cahalan said Flanagan was not satisfied with that explanation. "Security must always be a concern, but it can't be an excuse," the spokesman said.

Some agencies did provide the requested information promptly. The auditor who visited the state tax assessment office in Frederick reported that an employee offered help within 15 seconds and gave her the appraisal on a property immediately with no charge.

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