Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young recently proposed new legislation to achieve greater transparency in the operations of city government. His proposal would broadcast the meetings of several of most powerful city boards over cable television. City officials balked at the cost of the proposal, and rightfully so. The Internet can achieve even greater transparency, while being much cheaper and easier to use.
It should be noted that two existing state laws impose several important transparency requirements on city government: the Maryland Open Meetings Act and the Maryland Public Information Act. The Open Meetings Act requires that all governmental and quasi-governmental bodies falling under the law hold open meetings which all citizens can attend freely. It also requires that notice be given prior to each meeting, letting citizens know that it will take place, and that minutes of each meeting be recorded in a timely fashion. The second law, the Public Information Act allows citizens to request access to any government records. A key component of this law is that government cannot charge excessive fees for access to or photocopies of materials available under this law.
This means that every board and agency in the city that holds meetings must let us, the citizens, know about it in advance, and that written minutes must be created after each meeting. Additionally, anything ranging from the minutes and agenda of the powerful Board of Estimates down to how much the City Council spends on bottled water and its lunch menu, must be easily accessible to citizens. These two laws do not cover just the several boards mentioned in Mr. Young's proposal but extend to most city boards and agencies, and are already on the books today.
Mr. Young's proposes that meetings of several key city boards be televised on cable TV is well-intentioned, but it would be far more transparent, cheaper and broader to publish meeting notices and minutes of all city boards and agencies on the Internet. In addition, written records can be searched and perused much easier than video, whether live or recorded, and posting written records in lieu of video will not require the city to spend funds on new recording equipment as proposed by Mr. Young. Existing city law already mandates that the Department of Legislative Reference should collect the meeting notices and minutes of various boards and commissions. The City Council should require that this information, most of which is already in electronic form, be posted on the Internet for ease of access by all citizens.
Furthermore, an existing city law requires that fees for photocopies of public records shall be set at 15 cents per page citywide. Multiple city agencies, including the Board of Estimates, are possibly out of compliance with this law, and by extension the state law as well by charging excessive fees for photocopies. For example, the Board of Estimates currently charges $1 per page for copies of any of its records, when the state agency average is about 25 cents per page.
The mayor and city government should make sure that all city agencies comply with the Maryland Public Information Act in a uniform fashion and make sure that fees and procedures of access are uniform across the entire government. Furthermore, certain important city records, such as financial and ethics disclosure forms, can be published on the Internet as well. They are accessible under the existing law anyway; why not take a step further and make them public to all?
We have already seen great strides toward transparency by the city in many key areas. For example, the Board of Zoning Appeals publishes an online docket with appeals documents attached. The Department of Housing has an online database of code violations with actual photographs. The Department of Finance publishes a database listing payments from the city to various contractors, a property tax database, and a parking ticket database. The City Council itself has a very good online system for its agenda, minutes and proposed legislation.
It is a shame when it is easier to find out information about meetings of community associations and corporations than important city boards such as the Ethics Board. Mr. Young's proposal seems like a step backward. Instead, Mr. Young and the rest of the City Council should examine alternatives that would utilize the Internet and achieve compliance with existing laws.
Yakov Shafranovich is a software developer living in Northwest Baltimore. His e-mail is email@example.com.