This post summarizes the status of various public information and ethics bills that MACo took a position on during the 2020 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.
This year, for the first time in since the Civil War, the General Assembly closed session early on March 18, due to precautionary social distancing measures taken to curb the spread of COVID-19. Consequently, many bills did not have hearings or did not move forward due to time constraints to meet the new deadline. For more information on Maryland’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic visit MACo’s COVID-19 Resource Page.
Follow links for more coverage on Conduit Street and MACo’s Legislative Database.
Public Information Act
MACo recommended amendments to legislation that would have required that record custodians waive Public Information Act (PIA) fees for inmates, indigent applicants, and the over-broadly defined “representative of the news media.” Counties opposed the provision that would require automatic fee waivers, which many already provide, expressing concerns that a mandatory fee waiver could invite abusive requests. Public Information Act – Remote Access, Fee Complaints, Fee Waivers, and Inspection of Judicial Records (Open Government, Better Government Act) did not advance following its public hearings.
MACo offered amendments to legislation that would have required counties to adopt a policy of proactive disclosure, and granted the Public Information Act Compliance Board new authority to review record denials and compel disclosure. Counties pointed out that currently, challenges to record denials are properly heard by the Circuit Court, where a judge can conduct an in camera (private) review of the records in question to determine whether their release was valid, thereby protecting counties from liability concerns, particularly for mandatory denials. Public Information Act – Revisions failed to advance in committee following its public hearings.
MACo supported legislation that would have provided reasonable protections against the release of certain personally identifying information relating to witnesses under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) for 9-1-1 communication records. Under the bill, “witness” means a witness of specified crimes that include child abuse, homicide, and certain sexual crimes. Counties appreciated the narrowly crafted language aimed at protecting witnesses from the potential harm that could result from having their information made public. Public Information Act – Denial of Part of a Public Record – Victims and Witnesses passed through the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee with a favorable report, but did not advance out of the House.
MACo stood behind legislation that would have provided reasonable protections against the release of certain records of investigation conducted by an Inspector General under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) by allowing record custodians to temporarily deny inspections of records for ongoing investigations. Counties pointed out that comparable protections already exist for investigations conducted by the Attorney General, a State’s Attorney, a municipal or county attorney, a police department, or a sheriff; extending similar protections to Inspector Generals will allow investigations to proceed without interference. Public Information Act – Denial of Part of a Public Record – Investigations by Inspectors General passed through the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee with a favorable report, but did not advance out of the House.
MACo opposed legislation that sought to eliminate reasonable protections for an individual’s personal contact information under the Maryland Public Information Act (PIA) where that information is part of a distribution list and is used by government to send informational notices. Counties noted in the public hearing that legislation passed in 2018 established protections from disclosure for the names and contact information of persons who receive newsletters, informational notices, or emergency alerts from governmental entities or officials, which would be undermined by the bill introduced this session by allowing individuals’ email addresses, phone numbers, and physical addresses to be disclosed to outsiders. Allowing these disclosures would disincentivize people from signing up for government newsletters and mailing lists, and lead to unwanted solicitations for commercial and political operators. The bill sponsor introduced several amendments that would have kept the integrity of the 2018 legislation, thereby removing MACo’s opposition to the bill. Public Information Act – Required Denials – Distribution Lists did not advance following its hearing in the House and no hearing was held in the Senate before the close of session.
MACo strongly opposed legislation that would have unreasonably shortened the response time for county records custodians under Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA) to: (1) fulfill a request from 30 to 7 days; (2) respond to a request signaling more time is needed to process the request from 10 to 5 days; and (3) issue a written explanation for the denial of a request from 10 to 5 days. For many counties the shortened timelines would require the addition of several new employees for the exclusive purpose of handling PIA requests, and would likely lead to increased mistakes or less thorough reviews before releases. Counties stressed to lawmakers that the existing 30-day time limits strike 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. Ultimately, Public Information Act – Applications for Inspection – Responses and Time Limits received an unfavorable report from the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs and was withdrawn by the sponsor.
MACo opposed legislation that would have required a range of government employees and representatives to follow State ethics regulations currently applicable to registered private lobbyists. Additionally, one portion of the bill singled out employees of representative associations that smaller local governments rely upon to advocate in policy matters, potentially creating an unfair dichotomy between large and small governments. MACo argued that the bill misinterpreted the role of governments, especially local governments, in the policy process, stressing that state, county, and municipal officials and employees are routinely – and appropriately – sought by policymakers for input on administrative, implementation, and enforcement issues. Public Ethics – Lobbyists – Gift Exception and Regulated Activities Exemption received unfavorable reports from both the House and Senate committees.
MACo opposed legislation that would have imposed ethics requirements from Prince George’s County onto county elected officials and candidates for county office in every Maryland jurisdiction. Counties urged lawmakers to respect and maintain the tradition of allowing local ethics legislation to remain a matter for local jurisdictions to decide based on what is best suited for their structures and residents. Additionally, the State Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction over local, county, or municipal officials and employees and cannot accept complaints against those individuals who would violate a state standard. Public Ethics and Campaign Activity – County Governing Bodies and County Executives – Planning and Zoning Applications did not advance following its public hearing.
MACo opposed legislation that would have expanded ethics provisions applying to Prince George’s County to all charter counties including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil, Dorchester, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Talbot, and Wicomico. The provision prohibits county council members overseeing land use matters who received a campaign contribution from an applicant or representative of the applicant within 36 months prior to the filing of the application cannot participate in the proceeding. MACo urged lawmakers to respect and maintain the tradition of allowing local ethics legislation to remain a matter for local jurisdictions to decide based on what is best suited for their structures and residents. Public Ethics and Campaign Activity – County Council Members and County Executives – Limitations on Applicant Contributions did not advance following its public hearing.
MACo’s legislative initiative to target “implied preemption” was introduced this session by Delegate Karen Lewis Young and Senator Clarence Lam and provided that a public general law may not be construed to limit a power or function of a local government unless the General Assembly specifically states its intention in the legislation to limit or preempt local laws. Unfortunately the bill faced several legal questions about the required language and was withdrawn before a public hearing was held. MACo will continue to work with stakeholders, legal authorities, and the bill sponsors, to pursue the matter further with an eye toward legislation in the future.
For more on public information and ethics legislation tracked by MACo in the 2020 legislative session, click here.