Lisa Kershner, the state’s public access ombudsman, and Maryland Public Information Act Compliance Board Chairman John “Butch” West, issued a joint statement last week declaring their support for legislation that would strengthen the state’s public information law.
Since the law was instituted 50 years ago, most government documents have been available for inspection by any citizen, but enforcement of that statute has not been as strong as it should be.
The measure Kershner and West endorse, HB 502, which is cross-filed in the Senate as SB 590, attempts to change that by increasing the board’s authority, reducing the response time for replies to requests for information and establishing a penalty for noncompliance.
This is not a complete solution to a process that can be frustrating for both requestors and information gatekeepers, but it is an improvement at a time when more governments lean toward policies to filter out content that might reflect badly on it and its top officials. The public, so the theory goes, would not understand.
From our perspective, however, accountability is the price that must be paid when an entity takes money from the public because it produces little income of its own.
At the same time, however, this legislation protects government from being besieged by what Kershner and West describe as “burdensome or repetitive requests.”
In other words, even though the law guarantees the public’s right to inspect or obtain copies of reports and many kinds of documents, it does not grant citizens the right to make frivolous requests or to hound records custodians.
As Kershner and West said in their statement, HB 502 “enhances the ombudsman’s mediation process by giving parties a meaningful incentive to cooperate so as to avoid board review, while simultaneously enabling that review for disputes that are in real need of a binding decision. Ultimately, the bill creates more equitable access, ensures transparency, and will help restore public trust in state and local government.
We concur, and urge this district’s representatives to support these bills in the House and Senate.