SB695/HB755 would limit fees, improve oversight and close loopholes
(Annapolis, MD) – Good government organizations, newspaper editors, public health groups, environmental organizations, consumer advocates, social justice organizations and private citizens will testify today in support of legislation that would update the Maryland Public Information Act of 1970. SB695/HB755 would update the Maryland Public Information Act and remove obstacles to public access to public records by limiting and standardizing fees, improving oversight and closing exemption loopholes. The bill is sponsored by Senator Jamie Raskin (District 20) and is cross-filed in the House of Delegates by Delegate Bonnie Cullison (District 19).
More than 50 nonprofit organizations have signed onto testimony supporting the bill as an important step forward for Maryland. Among the several panels of supporters testifying on the bill, Jennifer Bevan-Dangel is the executive director of Common Cause Maryland and called on Senators to shine the light of transparency and access onto state government.
“All Marylanders deserve access to public information and data,” said Bevan-Dangel. “This bill represents a step forward for Maryland and a step forward for good government.”
A recent poll of 500 registered Maryland voters by OpinionWorks highlighted broad support for updating public information laws.
“Eighty-seven percent of Marylanders support updating the Maryland Public Information Act,” said Heather Iliff, executive director of Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. “Here’s something bipartisan we can do that will make our government better.”
Several major newspaper editorial boards across the state have endorsed the legislation, including the Baltimore Sun, the Carroll County Times, the Frederick News-Post and the Cumberland Times-News.
“Journalists need access to public records and information to tell their stories and hold the government accountable,” said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland, Delaware, DC Press Association. “We can’t be a proper watchdog if government can ignore or reject our public information requests without just cause.”
“Maryland should not shield any industry from disclosure about how it manages harmful pollution,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Transparency is essential across all sectors of government and industry, including agricultural waste management.”
Seventy-seven percent of respondents in the recent statewide survey supported making agriculture pollution plans, which are supported by taxpayer dollars, public.
The legislation would address three key components of Maryland’s existing laws regarding transparency and open government. The bill would:
- Limit and standardize fees that local governments charge for Public Information Act (PIA) requests. Advocates say that inconsistent fees across state agencies are sometimes so high they deter reasonable requests.
- Improve oversight by requiring faster PIA responses, establishing a citizen Public Information Act Compliance Board to hear appeals and designating an Ombudsman to mediate disputes.
- Close loopholes in its exemptions by making public all official documents from entities that receive tax credits or direct subsidies and establishing a “balance test” to determine whether existing exemptions to the PIA law are actually in the public interest.
Advocates are tweeting about the bill using #MdOpenGov.
The Hatcher Group 410-990-0284 chris(at)thehatchergroup.com
Marylanders for Open Government a network of diverse organizations connected by an interest in demanding fair and open access to government-funded data and information. Members of the network include environmental and public health groups, good government groups, consumer advocates and social justice organizations. More information and a list of member organizations can be found at www.MdOpenGov.org