PIA Compliance Board Considers Inmate Access, Commercial Requests at Annual Meeting

The Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) Compliance Board held its annual meeting on August 7, 2018, and considered several issues related to the PIA, including inmate access to information and commercial requests. MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp attended the meeting.

The Board has authority to determine whether PIA fees greater than $350 are reasonable and can reduce or eliminate them if the Board finds the fees are unreasonable (the PIA law allows for the recovery of fees based on the actual costs of complying with a PIA request, minus the first two hours of work). The Board does not have the authority to determine whether a custodian must legally release information or grant a fee waiver. Deborah Moore-Carter from Baltimore City is the Board’s local government member.

Inmate Access to Public Records

Board Chair John West characterized inmate access to public records as a “systemic issue” and noted the importance of providing convicted inmates with an avenue to information that could potentially exonerate someone who was wrongfully convicted. West stated that the Board was seeking guidance from the Office of the Attorney General on how to address the challenges posed to providing better access to inmates. This could potentially result in legislation in the 2019 or a subsequent session. However, as part of an open discussion with public attendees, West and other Board members acknowledged that some inmates made abusive requests and the any proposed modifications to the PIA would be limited to records directly pertaining to an inmate’s own case.

Commercial PIA Requests

An issue that many attending agencies raised with the Board was that of PIA requests for commercial purposes. Many attendees stated that such requests had become more numerous and complex in recent years and expressed frustration about the increasing time and costs needed to fulfill them. Some attendees shared stories about public anger after a custodian had to provide contact information that was subsequently used for commercial solicitations. The Board was sympathetic to the concerns raised and considered how the issue could be addressed.

PIA Ombudsman

West also complimented PIA Ombudsman Lisa Kershner, who is based in the Office of the Attorney General and acts as a voluntary and non-binding mediator for both records requestors and custodians. Kershner provided a short update on her work, noting that she is focused on reaching “practical solutions.” Kershner agreed that inmate requests were a major issue and also stressed the need for custodians to be appropriately trained on their record storage and retrieval systems. Kershner cited an emerging trend about government agencies reaching out to her proactively for either advice or training, noting that such requests were up threefold from the prior year.

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