Sunshine online

Maryland ranks 18th in the nation in making its records easily available to the public

March 15, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

If you want to use the Internet to view the inspection report on your aged parent's nursing home, Maryland's the place to be. But if you want to do an online check on the certification of your child's teacher, you're out of luck.

A new report shows that Maryland's government is neither as transparent as Texas' nor as opaque as Mississippi's in the information offered on its Web sites. The Free State, tied for 18th place out of 50, can claim to be on the clear side of translucent government.

According to the Sunshine Week 2009 Survey of State Government Information, Maryland Web sites provide access to information in 13 of 20 sample categories. The most open state in terms of providing information was Texas, where all 20 types of data are available through the Internet; the most closed was Mississippi, with four online.

The survey, released today, indicates that Maryland is doing an above-average job in keeping up with one of the most important trends in government information: using the Internet to make information widely available, without the need for cumbersome request processes.

"Digital technologies can be a great catalyst for democracy, but the state of access today is quite uneven," said Charles N. Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. "The future of freedom of information is online access, and states have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of electronic self-governance."

The coalition joined panels of the American Society of Newspapers Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists in developing the survey, which evaluated each state for its Web sites' usability, comprehensiveness, cost and up-to-date postings. The survey marks the annual Sunshine Week, developed by news media organizations to call attention to issues of open government.

The 20 types of information surveyed included death certificates, officials' financial disclosures, audit reports, bridge inspections, professional disciplinary actions, school test scores and environmental citations.

When information is unavailable online, the reason can range from administrative inaction to a legislative decision. In Maryland, the General Assembly has restricted access to the financial disclosure statements lawmakers and other high-ranking officials must file - requiring those who want to check the documents to show up in Annapolis and identify themselves. In 22 states, people can examine those records online.

Based on the sampled categories, the state records least likely to be put online are death certificates and gas pump overcharges. School building and bus safety inspection reports also are posted by relatively few states.

Commonly posted categories are transportation department contracts and statewide school test scores - available in almost every state. More than 40 states make campaign finance data, physician disciplinary actions and financial audits available online.

The survey gives Maryland high marks for information on nursing homes, adding that the presentation makes it easy for users to perform searches and comparisons. Information the surveyors did not find, besides financial disclosures and teacher certifications, includes consumer complaints, school inspections, school bus safety reports, gas pump overcharges and free death certificates.

In general, Maryland is most advanced in online posting in areas under the governor's direct control.

Among the innovations introduced under Gov. Martin O'Malley is a "database of expenditures" in which individuals can track spending by agency and recipient.

It's at http://spending.dbm.maryland.gov/.

Among the categories of information not found on line, three involve education: teacher certifications, school safety inspections and school bus inspections.

Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the semi-autonomous State Department of Education, said plans to post teacher certification information have been delayed by budget cuts. He pointed out that limited school maintenance records - though not inspection reports - are available at http://www.pscp.state.md.us/

In 25 states, but not in Maryland, people can look up consumer complaints against companies online - information controlled here by the attorney general's office.

Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, said the office would prefer to post the data but hasn't had the funds to put the records online.

"If there were a way for us to do it, and we had the money, we absolutely would," she said.

The Sunshine Week report was especially critical of the majority of states, including Maryland, that charge for copies of vital records such as death certificates.

To order a death certificate online in Maryland, one must go to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Web site, which provides a link to a private company called VitalChek. That company charges $18.75 with shipping and handling. According to the governor's office, eliminating the fee would require a change in Maryland law.

But Debra Gersh Hernandez, coordinator of the Sunshine Week project, said the government shouldn't charge for copies of documents compiled at taxpayers' expense.

"You really pay for it twice,' she said. "The information belongs to us - the public."

Hernandez said that overall, state governments are not doing too badly in making the transition to openly available information. She noted that by posting information openly, states can cut the cost of responding to public-records requests.

"Hopefully, with time, resources and a learning curve, states will find their way to be very efficient and thorough," she said.

Hernandez added that young people, in particular, will be looking to the Internet for government information.

"They're going to demand it," she said. "It's not going to be a luxury. It's going to be a necessity."

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