The public's records

December 01, 2003

WHO ARE you?

For whom do you work?

Why do you want this?

Far too often state employees initially respond with that kind of impermissible counter-questioning when citizens show up asking for all kinds of public records to which they are clearly entitled under the long-standing Maryland Public Information Act (PIA).

And far too often that's just the start of the ineptness, stalling or outright resistance that ensues for citizens seeking everyday public records -- documents like any driver's three-year driving record, a list of teachers whose certifications have been revoked, or complaints against real estate appraisers.

This depressing state of customer service to the citizens of Maryland was confirmed recently by a test conducted by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, which sent out reporters -- identifying themselves only as private citizens -- to request 25 public records that should have been readily available from 15 state agencies under Maryland law.

One way or another, the document seekers got stiffed about 40 percent of the time. If the public information was embedded in an electronic database or sought in electronic form, problems were even more thorny. Some examples:

At a state Motor Vehicles Administration regional office, one worker illegally denied the release of a public driving record after he realized it was a state senator's.

In another instance, also contrary to law, a state employee told a requester that simply wanting a public record was not sufficient reason for it to be provided.

Seeking a vehicle emissions report, a requester was turned away repeatedly by security from even entering the state Department of the Environment headquarters in southeast Baltimore -- until finally persisting in gaining entrance, and the record.

The really sad part of this problem -- bureaucrats treating public records that belong to citizens as state records that must be kept from citizens -- is that it's been more or less pervasive in Maryland for decades. Three years ago, the press association similarly tested local agencies across the state, as well as the MVA, and came away with results just as bad.

At the core of the problem is the 30-year-old state PIA, a law in theory premised on disclosure but weak enough that its practical function frequently is to shield documents.

And that -- along with today's heightened security and privacy concerns -- has led to a widespread initial instinct among state workers to protect records.

The state Attorney General's Office now promises a welcome new effort to train state workers to respond to public record requests. Such training -- for local officials -- followed the MDDC's earlier survey, and the association believes it has helped at that level.

More than education is needed, however. The state PIA law needs to be clarified, improved, and infused with some means of independent appeal and enforcement short of filing lawsuits. That has not happened in part because many legislators misperceive this issue as the news media seeking privileges. These aren't privileges but rights, and they're vested in and needed by every Maryland citizen.

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