2013 End of Session Wrap Up: Public Information and Ethics Legislation

This post summarizes the status of various public information and ethics bills that MACo either considered or took a position on.

Access to Electronic Records under the Maryland Public Information Act:  As introduced, HB 70 / SB 342 would have extended the termination date of a sunset provision on law clarifying how Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA) applies to electronic records by 3 years. SB 740 of 2011 updated provisions of the PIA to better reflect the use of electronic records. SB 740:  (1) required record custodians to provide copies of an electronic public record in a searchable and analyzable format, subject to certain conditions; (2) authorized a record-holder to redact “metadata” (information embedded in an electronic document describing the document’s history, tracking, and document management information); and (3) clarified that the record-holder may charge a reasonable fee for providing an electronic document similar to the fees charged for paper documents.  MACo supported the final version of SB 740 as way to provide better public access to electronic records while addressing practical concerns raised by record custodians and consequently supported HB 70 / SB 342.

FINAL STATUS:  The General Assembly passed HB 70 / SB 342 with identical amendments that repealed the termination date in its entirety.  MACo supported the amended bill.

MACo HB 70 Testimony

Open Meeting Act Penalties and Violations:  As introduced, HB 331 / SB 826 would require a public body that has been found by the Open Meetings Compliance Board to have violated the Open Meetings Act to have a member summarize the opinion at the public body’s next open meeting and have a majority of the public body’s members sign the opinion and return it to the Board.  Additionally, the bill increased the civil penalty for a member of a public body who knowingly and willfully participates in a meeting that violates the Open Meetings Act from $100 to up to $1,000 for the first violation and $10,000 for each subsequent violation that occurs within 3 years of the first violation. The bill also applied the penalty to the public body as opposed to the individual member.  MACo supported the bill with amendments to remove the new penalty language.

FINAL STATUS:  MACo worked with a stakeholders group on HB 331 and the bill passed the House with consensus amendments that were supported by MACo that:  (1) reduced the fines down to a maximum of $250 and $1,000; (2) required a court to consider the ability of the public body to pay the fine when determining the appropriate penalty; and (3) clarified that a public body’s acknowledgment and signing of a Board opinion did not constitute evidence of an Open Meetings Act violation. The General Assembly passed HB 331 with the consensus amendments.  The Senate initially gave SB 826 an unfavorable report but later revived the bill and passed it with the consensus amendments.  However, the House took no action on SB 826.

MACo HB 331 Testimony

Open Meetings Act Enforcement AuthorityHB 484 would have authorized the Attorney General or a State’s Attorney to file a petition against a public body in circuit court if the public body has failed or may fail to comply with certain provisions of the Open Meetings Act. The Attorney General or State’s Attorney may file a petition on their own initiative or after receiving a verified complaint from another person. The petition can ask the court to: (1) determine the applicability of Open Meeting provisions; (2) require the public body to comply with the provisions; or (3) void the action of the public body.  MACo opposed the bill, arguing that it unnecessarily duplicated existing law and that neither the Attorney General nor the State’s Attorneys were appropriate choices to make decisions regarding potential Open Meetings Act violations.

FINAL STATUS:  HB 484 was withdrawn by the bill’s sponsor. 

MACo HB 484 Testimony

Electronic Posting of Legal Notice Requirements:  HB 1136 / SB 523 would authorize a local government to publish certain legal notices online as opposed to in a newspaper.  The bill would also require the local government to periodically run ads in a newspaper describing which kinds of notices are available online and offer a free mail subscription service for residents and local newspapers that wish to receive the legal notices directly.  The bill also requires the local government to maintain a paper copy of the notice and an affidavit that states the initial date through the last date that the notice was published on the local government’s website.  MACo supported the bill, noting the increased prevalence of Internet usage and the cost savings to local governments.

FINAL STATUS:  The Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee gave SB 523 an unfavorable report.  The House Environmental Matters Committee referred HB 1136 to an interim summer study.

MACo HB 1136 Testimony

Lobbyist Registration for State and Local Government Entities and AssociationsHB 1193 would require a wide range of government employees and representatives, including staff for MACo and MML, to register and be treated as regulated lobbyists under State law.  MACo opposed the bill, citing the differences between public sector representatives and private lobbyists and noted that the bill would essentially eliminate the ability of the General Assembly to hear from local non-elected officials and employees on policy issues.

FINAL STATUS:  HB 1193 was heard by the House Environmental Matters Committee and when the Committee raised concerns about the breadth of the bill, the bill’s sponsor offered to limit the bill solely to MACo and MML staff.  The Committee took no further action on the bill.

MACo HB 1193 Testimony