Public Information Act Bill – Compromise Settles Thorny Issues

As introduced, HB 755/SB 695 would make major changes to Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA), including creation of a Public Information Act Compliance Board with oversight authority over document denials, fee waiver decisions, and the fees charged by a record custodian.  The bill also changed the rules for charging fees, increased a custodian’s mandatory free search time from 2 hours to 5 hours, required itemized lists of records be included in a denial, exposed local government custodians to new statutory damages, and made agricultural nutrient management plans subject to public inspection.  The bill was drafted by a consortium of open government and environmental advocates, including Common Cause Maryland, the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and the Maryland ACLU.

In its testimony at the bill hearings, MACo supported the bill with amendments, noting that while it supported the bill’s general purpose of increasing transparency it had problems with many of the bill’s specific provisions.  MACo, along with representatives from the Maryland Municipal League and the State, have engaged in over 30 hours of negotiations with the bill’s proponents and have reached agreement on a set of amendments that addressed county concerns.  On March 25, the Senate unanimously passed SB 695 with the consensus amendments.

MACo HB 755 Testimony

MACo SB 695 Testimony

A March 23 article discussed the bill’s earlier unanimous vote passage out of the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee:

In a unanimous vote, a Senate committee brought legislation to the floor Monday night that will create a new Public Information Act Compliance Board to oversee fees. It will also establish that those fees must be actual costs to assemble the records — with the first two hours free — and create a new ombudsman in the office of the Attorney General to mediate and offer guidance to all government agencies about requests for public records.

The legislation, SB695, was a response to persistent complaints and horror stories of government agencies failing to comply with Public Information Act requests and overcharging for the requested documents or files.

The bill was backed by a broad coalition of nonprofits, good government groups, media and advocacy groups under the umbrella of Marylanders for Open Government. …

The committee removed a section of the original bill that applied only to agriculture, and it also removed fines that the compliance board could impose.

The section on the ombudsman was added at the suggestion of Attorney General Brian Frosh, who supports the legislation. The ombudsman would be an attorney.

The Health and Government Operations Committee has not yet taken action on HB 755 but with an agreement reached will likely move one or both of the bills with the consensus amendments.

Many local media outlets have run editorials in support of the PIA legislation (links courtesy of Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association)

February 11, 2015 Baltimore Sun Editorial

February 12, 2015 Carroll County Times Editorial

February 13, 2015 Frederick News-Post Editorial

February 16, 2015 Cumberland Times-News Editorial

March 15, 2015 Capital Gazette Editorial

 March 18,2015 Editorial