Maryland’s residents have the right to know how government transacts business on their behalf. To help set this culture of openness, Maryland legislators created the Public Information Act in 1970, followed by the Open Meetings Act in 1977. There are two volunteer boards that provide an outlet for citizen complaints relating to these acts and serve as an alternate or intermediate step before a dispute is taken to court. The Open Meetings Compliance Board was refreshed with new members in 2015 and issues nonbinding advisory opinions. Members of the newly created Public Information Act Compliance Board were appointed last spring. That board reviews complaints regarding fees over $350 for information under the Public Information Act.
Both compliance boards recently issued annual reports. The Open Meetings Compliance Board received more complaints (41 this year) and issued more opinions than in previous years. The first year for the Public Information Act Compliance Board saw five members appointed and nine complaints submitted, with five opinions issued. Both boards have committed, active volunteer members that take open government issues seriously.
However, the advice provided by the opinions shows that there is significant progress to be made regarding government transparency in Maryland. The compliance boards have limited jurisdiction and no ability to compel government to release information or to open meetings. However, the compliance boards are making the most of their purview.
Some public bodies never seem to learn, or care, about investing residents in public business. Taking into account that the compliance boards hear only the complaints that someone has taken the time to write up and file, Maryland’s public often may be turned away or unaware of meetings.
The Public Information Act Compliance Board is newly formed, and already it sees room for improvement. For instance, it puzzled over delays in response times and noted that “the law should ensure that records are produced as quickly as possible and without undue delay.” Further, it noted that “some custodians view the 30 days as the standard and do not provide records sooner than 30 days, even when the materials are readily available.”
We look to the attorney general’s interim report, slated to be released at the end of the year, to better understand how residents and journalists view these boards and what can be done to make them more effective. The real answer here may be to invest the compliance boards with enforceable powers and the ability to levy fees for repeated violations, moving them beyond the power of suggestion and opinion.
Rebecca Snyder is the executive director of the Maryland, Delaware, DC Press Association, of which the Jewish Times is a member.