This post summarizes the status of various public information and ethics bills that MACo took a position on for the 2015 Regular Session.
Revisions to the Public Information Act: HB 755/SB 695 makes major changes to Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA). As introduced, the bill would have created a new State Public Information Act Compliance Board to resolve disputes over discretionary denials of information, fees, and denials of a newly created fee waiver for indigency. The bill also included a section requiring a contractor or subcontractor to relinquish public records, mandated new response times for custodians, limited when fees may be charged, lessened the burden of proof for requestors who take a case to court, and created new statutory damages.
HB 867 was a very similar bill that would also created a new State Public Information Act Compliance Board to resolve disputes over discretionary denials of information and the charging of fees. The Board would be able to compel the production of documents, set the amount of fees charged by a custodian, and order fee refunds.
MACo supported the both HB 755/SB 695 and HB 867 with amendments, citing broad legal and practical concerns with many of the bills’ provisions. MACo pledged to work with the bill stakeholders and attempt to address these concerns.
FINAL STATUS: After prolonged negotiations with the bill sponsors and the broad coalition of media and open government advocates in favor of the bill, MACo was successful in reaching agreement on an acceptable set of amendments for HB 755/SB 695. As amended, the bill would:
- Create a 5-member State Public Information Act Compliance Board that would review and resolve complaints alleging that a custodian charged an “unreasonable” fee (over $350).
- Create a Public Access Ombudsman within the Office of the Attorney General who will attempt to mediate and resolve PIA disputes between applicants and custodians.
- Require a custodian who reasonably believes that it will take more than 10 working days to produce a public record to respond to an applicant within 10 working days after receipt of the request with an estimate of the amount of time it will take and the fees that may be charged and the reason for the delay.
- Require a custodian who is denying public records to provide: (1) A brief description of the undisclosed record that will enable the applicant to assess the applicability of the legal authority for the denial; and (2) for discretionary denials, a brief explanation of why the denial is necessary.
- Alter how a custodian charges fees: (1) for a record provided in standard format, the custodian may charge for the actual costs of the search, preparation, and reproduction of the record, including media and mechanical processing costs (staff costs are prorated based on each individual’s salary and actual time involved); and (2) if an applicant wants a record prepared in a customized format, the custodian may charge a reasonable fee for the search, preparation, and reproduction of that record.
- Allow a custodian to waive a fee if an applicant is indigent and files an affidavit of indigency (defined as a family household income of less than 50% the median family income for the State).
- Repeal current law allowing a complainant to seek administrative review of PIA request dispute through the Office of Administrative Hearings.
- Modify current law regarding appeals to the circuit court including allowing a court to impose up to $1,000 in statutory damages against a governmental unit for knowing or willful acts
- Require the Office of the Attorney General, in consultation with MACo and other key stakeholders, to file reports in 2016 and 2017 on how the bill and the PIA are functioning and to make any further recommended changes to the PIA.
The General Assembly passed HB 755 and SB 695 with the consensus amendments. HB 867 was withdrawn by the bill’s sponsor.
Note: MACo did not submit testimony on HB 867.
Agenda Requirements for Public Bodies: HB 583/SB 879 requires a public body to provide an agenda to the public before meeting in open session. The agenda must contain available information regarding matters to be discussed at the portion of the meeting that is open and whether the public body expects to close any portion of the meeting. The public body is not required to provide any information regarding the topics of a closed portion of the meeting. The agenda must be provided at the same time the public body provides notice of the meeting or, if not determined at that point, at least 24 hours before the meeting. A public body may provide the agenda using a method authorized under the PIA for giving notice.
MACo supported the bill with amendments that would cover a situation where a public body meets in response to an emergency or similar situation and is unable to comply with the bill’s 24 hour requirement. The amendment would provide that in such a situation, the public body must provide an agenda to the public within a reasonable time after the meeting takes place.
FINAL STATUS: HB 583 was heard by the House Health and Government Operations Committee but the Committee took no action on the bill. SB 879 was introduced late and was not released from the Senate Rules Committee.