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Two Maryland bills, that aim to strengthen public information requests, to be heard next week

Del. Brooke Lierman (left), Del. Micehel Guyton (right)

Two state bills, which aim to strengthen the public’s ability in obtaining public information from Maryland’s government agencies, will be heard on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 1:00 pm in Annapolis.

Known as the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), the statute mandates that government agencies produce certain types of documents when presented with a public records request under the state’s version of the Freedom of Information Act – or FOIA – a legislative statute which allows anyone to access certain types of government information upon request.

House Bill 42:

Del. Michele Guyton, a Democrat who represents legislative district 42B in Baltimore County, sponsored  HB42, the “Public Information Act – Applications for Inspection – Responses and Time” bill which looks to shorten the time Maryland agencies have to provide requested documents – at the request of any member of the public or media – from about one month to roughly two weeks.

Currently, Maryland allows its agencies up to 30 business days in which to hand over public records, while three-quarters of the country gives its agencies half that time or less. Guyton is seeking to slash that time in half, to 15 business days.

The media – a sub-group which most often uses the MPIA process – can be hampered in its information-gathering efforts and publishing of government information for the public, due to the current MPIA time frame which allows agencies more time than any other state in the country which requires responses to record requests within a statutory amount of time.

Currently, the FOIA allows three business days for nine states, four days for two states, five days for 11 states, and seven days for four states. And 12 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have mandated response times that fall somewhere between 10 and 20 business days, while 11 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 do so.

But for those states that do require a firm deadline, Maryland stands alone at 30 business days.

The cross-filed bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Chris West, was postponed last month and has not yet been rescheduled.

House Bill 502

Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore City Democrat who represents the 46th legislative district, introduced HB502, the “Public Information Act – Revisions” bill which seeks to – in part – strengthen the oversight of the MPIA Compliance Board – a five-member group which currently only has the authority to review disputes when an agency charges $350 or more for a public record.

The bill would allow the board to intervene when an agency fails to respond to a records request within mandated time limits and prohibit an agency from charging fees if the board determines that the agency violated certain provisions of the MPIA.

If passed, the bill would also give the board the ability to compel an agency to produce public records that have been denied if the board finds those records should not have been withheld under certain MPIA exemptions.  Further, the bill would require agencies to publicly disclose all fees charged to requesters and the number of fee waivers granted.

Additionally, agencies would be required to publish a list of their MPIA response times and whether the requests were granted or denied.  For requests exceeding the current 30-business-day time limit, agencies would be required to publicly disclose the reasons for the delays.  Each agency would also be required to adopt a policy of proactive disclosure of its public records as well as publish prior responses to MPIA requests.

The bill also seeks to give Maryland agencies the ability to ignore requests if the board establishes that a requestor is perceived by an agency as having a pattern of submitting MPIA requests in bad faith, or are frivolous or threatening, and would alter the criteria under which a person may file a complaint against an agency.

For those interested in weighing in on the bills, but are unable to testify, letters may be sent to the bill sponsors directly at Del. Michele Guyton and Del. Brooke Lierman.  The offices must also be contacted in advance by those wishing to testify.
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