This post summarizes the status of various public information and ethics bills that MACo took a position on during the 2019 Regular Session.
County governments gather and maintain public information as part of their various functions. Compliance with the Maryland Public Information Act and maintenance of a high level of ethics in all government practices are priorities throughout the administrative agencies and legislative bodies of Maryland’s county governments. Through its advocacy and professional education in the areas of public information and ethics, MACo urges a balance between public safety, government efficiency and public information demands and works with the State’s Office of Attorney General and Ethics Commission on behalf of counties.
Follow links for more coverage on Conduit Street and MACo’s Legislative Database.
Public Information Act
MACo opposed legislation that would have re-written current law such that a record related to a formal complaint of job-related misconduct made against a public employee (including an investigation record, hearing record, or disciplinary decision) would not be considered a personnel record for purposes of Public Information Act (PIA) disclosures. Under this legislation, custodians could still have denied records of the complaint, investigation, hearing, or decision if the record meets current PIA denial criteria. Arguing that it would upset the reasoned and longstanding practice of the PIA to protect the details of sensitive internal investigations regarding employees and personnel, MACo noted that venues already exist for citizens who wish to pursue a remedy beyond an internal agency review and the bill would needlessly expose government employees to potential abuse and place additional burdens on record custodians. Personnel and Investigatory Records – Formal Complaints Against Public Employees was withdrawn by its sponsors.
MACo supported with amendments legislation providing protections against the release of certain victim identifying information or gory or gruesome images from 9-1-1 records based on a PIA request. MACo argued that the implementation of Next Generation 9-1-1 will generate images and media not previously subject to public scrutiny – including the insides of private homes and businesses and visceral scenes of trauma. The potential for abusive use of such media, including victim-shaming and posting on the internet, is extremely high and reasonable PIA protections are needed. The General Assembly passed 9-1-1 Communications – Denial of Part of a Public Record with MACo-supported amendments.
As amended, 9-1-1 Communications – Denial of Part of a Public Record provides that before allowing inspection of a 9-1-1 communications record that depicts a victim of abuse, domestic violence, or a sexual crime, a records custodian must first contact the victim or the victim’s representative within 30 days after receiving the PIA request. The victim or representative then has 10 days to indicate whether they believe inspection may be contrary to the public interest. The custodian must consider the victim or representative’s response when deciding whether to grant or deny inspection. A custodian must always allow inspection by a person in interest and may redact information depicting a victim if a failure to do so would result in a constructive denial of the entire public record. The custodian does not have to notify the victim or representative if the custodian does not have their contact information.
MACo did not take a position on legislation that would have provided that a record custodian must allow inspection of a personnel record of a law enforcement agency or officer to a representative of an agency with the power and jurisdiction to administratively investigate alleged misconduct of the officer who is the subject of the record. MACo’s affiliate partners lead advocacy on this issue. The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee held a hearing on Personnel Records of Law Enforcement Officers – Inspections by Investigative Agencies, but the Committee took no further action on the bill.
Legal Notice Requirements
MACo supported legislation that would have authorized a local government to publish certain legal notices online as opposed to in a newspaper, bills, noting the increased prevalence of Internet usage and the cost savings to local governments. The legislation required 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 legislation also required 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. Unfortunately, the legislation received unfavorable reports from its committees of origin in each chamber and did not advance.
County Boards of Education – Financial Accountability Disclosures
MACo supported with amendments legislation to create new financial disclosure, conflict of interest, and lobbying requirements to school boards, superintendents, and school system employees. While most of the bill focused on school boards and their employees and did not directly concern counties, MACo raised concern regarding one PIA provision. The provision would require a records custodian to waive any fee if one-third or more members of a Board of Education make a PIA request. MACo requested the provision be deleted as the provision would allow for abusive requests, set a new precedent under the PIA, and destroy longstanding and well-established protections already under the PIA.
The General Assembly passed HB 355 with the MACo amendment and other amendments deleting the conflict of interest and lobbying parts of the bill. As amended, the bill requires a county school board to annually report to the Department of Budget and Management information on certain payees and the amount of payments made. County boards must also retroactively report this information for specified fiscal years. Finally, if a school system is charging an applicant a fee for a PIA request, the system must provide written notice to the applicant that the applicant may file a complaint with the county board of education to contest the fee.