New reforms illuminate Maryland’s public records

Maryland State House. (Photo credit: Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons)

Maryland is about to take a big step toward increasing transparency: Both the state’s House and Senate have passed positive reforms to the state’s Public Information Act (PIA), making its public records more accessible to all.

The changes arrive after Marylanders for Open Government — a coalition of community and transparency organizations, of which Sunlight is a member — came together to develop suggestions to improve the law, which hasn’t been updated in 45 years. The legislation now awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

Maryland’s current PIA grants the public a broad right of access to records owned by state and local government agencies, attempting to give people access to a broad range of government records without unnecessary costs or delays. But while Maryland’s law has important strengths, the state’s current practice of disclosing public records is not without its flaws. Regular problems for requesters range from high fees to unreasonable denials of access. Given the broad scope of the act, the burden of proof to reject a request currently falls on any governmental entity or official seeking exclusion from the PIA, but these rejections are insufficiently supervised.

To help identify specific opportunities for reforming the PIA, Marylanders for Open Government formed to discuss ways to improve the law. The group worked to develop reforms around three major areas of concern: fees, enforcement and exemptions. To tackle those issues, the group helped draft HB 755/SB 695, legislation that would amend the PIA to open up government information more effectively. Specifically, the coalition developed the following recommendations:

  • Creating a state PIA compliance board with five members to review and resolve complaints about unreasonable fees.The costs must be over $350 for the board to consider the case;
  • Creating a “Public Access Ombudsman” position within the Office of the Attorney General to mediate and resolve PIA disputes between applicants and custodians;
  • Creating new deadlines for responding to requests to records;
  • Developing denial procedures;
  • Revising the fees a custodian may charge for a public records request;
  • Increasing an agency’s liability for damages if a court finds that the defendant knowingly and willfully failed to disclose a record the plaintiff was entitled to inspect;
  • A court may now impose statutory damages on non-compliant agencies;
  • The Office of the Attorney General, in consultation with the Maryland Association of Counties and other key stakeholders, must file interim final reports on findings and recommendations for improving the PIA.

Any good open data program depends on good access to public records. Informed civic participation depends on people being able to get the information they want from their governments. Because of that, Sunlight feels strongly about preserving and increasing legal access to government’s open records. We’ve been excited to be able to help support reform to Maryland’s public records law: This session, the state has joined other cities and states in the country who have already taken steps to improve public access to government information. We can’t wait to see what increased protection for public records access means for the state!