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Maryland Legislator Wants to Bring the Public’s Access to Government Information in Line with Most of Nation

Maryland State Del. Michele Guyton

Del. Michele Guyton wants to bring Maryland’s current time requirement to produce public documents in line with over half of the nation.

“I believe that government transparency and accountability is extremely important and that this bill will have a positive effect on both.  Not just for the press and general public, but particularly for parents who are waiting long periods of time to get information to help navigate the Individualized Education Plan process.”

The proposed legislation – called Public Information Act Application Timeline – aims to speed up the process and the public’s right to know.

As it stands, the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) – the state’s version of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – allows Maryland’s government agencies up to 30 business days in which to provide requested documents.

Guyton, a Democrat who represents Legislative District 42B, has proposed through the new bill, shortening that time frame to seven business days which would speed up the delivery of information that is provided to the public and the media.

If passed, the bill will drastically cut the current wait time by 23 days, from roughly one month to just over one week.

Guyton also has the support of  Sen. Chris West, a Republican who represents the same legislative district. “I will enthusiastically introduce a bill in the State Senate to change the law to 7 business days.  30 days is far too long,” West said in a statement to The Gunpowder Gazette.

An information gathering method most used by the media and attorneys, the MPIA is a statute which allows anyone to access certain government information upon request.

Waiting up to one month for requested documents – when over half of the states in the country adhere to statutes requiring seven days or fewer – puts Maryland dead last in the nation when it comes to specific response time requirements.

Access to public records – through MPIA or FOIA requests – is designed to keep citizens “in the know” about the government’s business.

The United States Supreme Court considers access to public records a vital part of democracy, stating 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.”

But the speed of the process to obtain government documents is determined by states individually.

Maryland being last when it comes to states with declared mandatory response times means the public’s access to government information can be considerably delayed compared to the majority of the country, and the media’s ability to obtain that information for the public, slowed.

FOIA response times by the numbers (as of July 2019):

(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: 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 allowable time period.  Agencies may also charge fees for copying, searching and redacting information.  Processing time for payments may create additional delays, particularly if an agency’s method of accepting payment is antiquated.

But as it stands, those seeking records in Maryland can wait longer than three-quarters of the country, as currently allowed by Maryland law.

Should the MPIA bill pass, the Maryland General Assembly would be directly impacted by the passage of the bill.  Legislators would, in effect, be voting to allow the press and the public to gain access to their own documents faster.

While Guyton says she has not yet encountered any internal opposition, she said, “I expect there to be some (opposition), most likely from State Agencies who will be forced to comply.”

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