This story originally published in The Baltimore Post on July 2, 2019. Written by Ann Costantino
Maryland statute allows for up to 30 business days for its government agencies to produce documents when presented with a public record request under the state’s version of the Freedom of Information Act – commonly known as the FOIA, pronounced “foy-a” – a legislative statute which allows anyone to access government information upon request.
The state comes in dead last in the nation when compared to states which mandate statutory time limits on responses to record requests. But out of 38 states, the District of Columbia and even the federal government – all which spell out definitive record response times – The Baltimore Post has found that Maryland’s Public Information Act (MPIA) allows for a time frame that stands alone as an outlier, towering over most of the nation.
This means the public’s access to government information in Maryland can be considerably delayed compared to the majority of the nation; and the media’s ability to obtain that information for the public, slow.
The FOIA is a statute, the Supreme Court says, that was designed to encourage “accountability through transparency.”
But the slow walk and time frame some media and even average citizens experience when requesting records in Maryland sometimes makes news irrelevant by the time the records are produced – if they are produced.
“Some government agencies are dragging it out so long that (information is) no longer newsworthy…”
“We believe the more information the public has, the better,” says Rebecca Snyder, the executive director of the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association, a professional membership organization for news agencies. Some government agencies are “dragging it out so long that (information is) no longer newsworthy,” she said.
Snyder, who is also a registered lobbyist, has worked for years for MPIA reform. And, she said, while she was aware of the 30 days allowed by Maryland’s state agencies, she did not know how the state stacked up against the rest of the country.
The Baltimore Post found that over 75 percent of the nation is asked by states’ respective laws to provide government documents to requesters from anywhere between three to 20 business days.
But more than half of the country is required to provide records within seven business days – or fewer – while Maryland stands alone, with over one month to produce requested documents.
Although MPIA requires agencies to respond with documents “immediately” if they are available, and within 10 business days with what an agency’s response will be, those agencies have up to 30 days to actually produce the public information.
Access to public records – through MPIA or FOIA requests – is designed to keep citizens “in the know” about the government’s business.
It is considered a vital part of democracy according to the United States Supreme Court which asserts that the “basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”
Under the law, agencies must release any requested records unless that information is protected from disclosure by law – which varies by state – and may carry a cost to search, prepare and redact information.
Agencies are also not required to create documents – nor answer questions – but must make public information available upon request.
Each state has its own version and name for the FOIA, which is similar to the purpose of the federal Freedom of Information Act which was signed into law in 1966 by then President Lyndon Johnson.
The MPIA – enacted in 1970 – covers public agencies and officials in Maryland and includes all branches of the state’s government.
But compared to three-quarters of the country, Maryland stands out.
FOIA response times, by the numbers:
(Business days, which exclude holidays and weekends)
3 days: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri and Vermont
4 days: Connecticut and Nebraska
5 days: Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin
7 days: Indiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Tennessee
10 days: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas and Utah
15 days: Delaware, New Mexico, South Carolina and the District of Columbia
20 days: Iowa and the federal government
30 days: Maryland
Eleven states allow their government agencies discretion in responding to record requests “promptly,” “without delay,” or within a “reasonable time frame” without assigning a set number of days in which to respond. Those states are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wyoming.
Factors, such as an agency’s backlog of requests – or the depth of an individual’s request – may contribute to delayed responses past the allowed time period. Agencies may also charge fees for copying, searching and redacting information. Processing time for payments may create additional delays.
But as it stands, those seeking records in Maryland can wait longer than three-quarters of the country, as currently allowed by Maryland law.
Maryland State Del. Michele Guyton said she and her staff are working to change that. “I feel that public transparency and openness are incredibly important to the public trust. I appreciate the opportunity to research this issue and work with the Legislature and advocacy groups to try and address this problem,”Guyton, a Democrat who represents legislative district 42B, said. “My office is currently drafting possible legislation to introduce a timeline for response to requests for public information in the 2020 Session.”
Sen. Chris West, a Republican who represents the same district, said he has a time frame already in mind. “Five business days sounds reasonable to me,” West said. “Thirty days sounds far too long. Let’s work together on a five business day bill in 2020.”