MACo Warns Reduced PIA Time Limits Would Strain Counties & Degrade Responses

MACo Legal & Policy Counsel Les Knapp presented testimony with Hilary Ruley, Chief Solicitor from Baltimore City Dept. of Law, on February 11, 2020 to oppose HB 42 – Public Information Act – Applications for Inspection – Responses and Time Limits.

The bill mandates a shortened response time – reducing from 30 days to 7 days – for county records custodians to fulfill Public Information Act (PIA) document requests. The bill also compresses the timetable for making decisions on issuing denials and permitted time extensions to satisfy requests. Counties argue that the proposed timelines are unmanageable, would likely degrade record production, and significantly increase county expenditures.

PIA requests are an increasingly common method to obtain public documents related to government activities from various public agencies. In general, the number of PIA requests that counties receive have been increasing in both number and complexity.

From the MACo Testimony:

Maryland’s carefully balanced PIA laws strive to promote access to public information, while wisely protecting a substantial range of information from being disclosed. State law places the duty of determining what contents of public records are mandatory disclosures, permitted disclosures, or required denials—and the contents of specific files and documents can frequently contain a combination of each such category. Public sector professionals are asked to make these judgments routinely, at the risk of lawsuit or other repercussions if they err in their judgments.

. . . For many counties (as the custodians of many such records) the shortened timelines would require the addition of several new employees for the exclusive purpose of handling PIA requests. Even with the addition of new resources, such a stringent timeline could lead to mistakes or less thorough reviews in the release of information and subject counties to unnecessary lawsuits. In most instances, the 30-day time limit strikes a proper balance between expedient document production, the capacity of counties to ensure protection of documents they are legally unable to disclose, and the capacity of custodians to search for and produce all relevant requested documents.

Follow MACo’s advocacy efforts during the 2020 legislative session on MACo’s Legislative Tracking Database.