How transparent is Maryland?
“Tepid.” “Lower-middle of the pack.” “Weak penalties for violations.” That’s how panelists described the state of transparency in Maryland Tuesday afternoon in an open symposium on transparency. The MDDC Press Association brought together experts in transparency from media, government, academia and advocacy groups to discuss the culture of transparency and the public’s trust in government – and media.
The panel, moderated by Trif Alatzas, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Sun, discussed the the ongoing relationship between public records requestors and custodians and the effect that has on the public’s knowledge of government actions.
"Radically different perspectives"
“Reporters are our friends,” says Neil Greenberger, legislative information officer to Montgomery County. In Greenberger’s office, focused requests for information get the best results. That cheery attitude is not the same across the state. Adam Snyder, Chief of Opinions of the Office of the Attorney General, should know. He’s been tasked with writing an interim report on the state of the Public Information Act, which will be released at the end of 206. In a survey of over 300 custodians and requestors, he found that there are “radically different perspectives” from each group, even on fact-based questions such as how long it takes on average to fulfill a request. It seems as if most requestors perceive a “wily custodian,” deftly blocking access to information on technicalities and running up excessive fees and running out the clock. For their part, custodians perceive requestors as combative and overbearing without an understanding of how records are kept or organized. Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and a long-time open records advocate, thinks journalists need to communicate earlier and more frequently with records custodians to access the records they need. Too often, requestors rely on expansive phrases such as “relating to or pertaining to” which adds unnecessary complexity to a records request. As Greenberger says, “Asking a better question will get you a better answer.”
Panelists and audience members had a litany of complaints about their public records experiences. The pace of the process is too slow, with a perception that some custodians wait out the clock and intentionally use the full 30-day deadline as a way to slow down requestors. The layers of legal review that documents undergo are not required by public records law, Dalglish said, and urged that standard documents should always be public. Inconsistent application of the law across differing agencies frustrated some, while others focused on the difficulty getting information from specific jurisdictions.
Who is going to care?
As the number of reporters in the area decrease, Greenberg thinks that emboldens some public officials. “If there is no reporter in the room, it changes the way some people do business. Who is going to care?” The government is funded by the public for the benefit of the public. Debbi Wilgoren, Maryland and politics editor for the Washington Post, thinks that government ought to be telling the public what they are doing – and journalists help “protect the public trust” in government with clear and careful reporting. She feels government accountability, even with reduced reporting numbers, is still possible and necessary. Technological advances in audio and digital records allow reporters to cover more territory and provide a window in to the workings of government for citizens. This access is uneven across the state and even in Annapolis, where committee meetings are live-streamed and recorded, but often, sub-committee meetings are not.
At the end of the day, the penalties for violating open meetings and open records law are extremely weak. Feeble consequences create a chilling effect for openness. Wilgoren says that there is a “pervasive, clubby feel” among government officials where they think they don’t have to open up their process. In her experience, fewer government employees are allowed to speak on the record and officials are loathe to share more information than they would at a news conference. She calls this “reluctant compliance,” where officials disclose what they have to, rather than what they should do.
Maryland has recently appointed a Public Access Ombudsman, Lisa Kershner, and a Public Information Act Compliance Board that provide avenues other than court to resolve disputes around public records. Dalglish said that in states where there is a long-standing independent ombuds program, the speed of request fulfillment goes up, specifically citing Pennsylvania as an example. Independence – and money – are key. The Pennsylvania program that has been so successful came with a budget. Adam Snyder noted that public information act programs are often the first to be “nibbled away” by budget cuts and the results don’t bode well for ongoing transparency.
Some jurisdictions, especially Montgomery County, have experimented with Open Data portals. Publicly posting information is an excellent way to provide commonly requested items in an accessible format. Those programs won’t eliminate the need for records requests, though they may reduce the number.
Where to go next?
Damon Effingham, policy manager of Common Cause Maryland, cautioned that the goal can’t just be “transparency.” A culture of accountability in government action is critical. Effingham thinks that educating the public on the purpose of transparency and how the media is a watchdog partner will strengthen the public’s trust in government. Consequences for violations should be strengthened to provide real disincentives and budgetary and procedural support should be provided to ensure that custodians fulfill the trust placed in them by the public.
Additional reading on this topic:
Public Contracts Shrouded in Secrecy, Reveal News, November 16, 12016
Local Governments Hide Public Records, Face Few Consequences, Reveal News, November 16, 2016
As local coverage wanes, residents become self-taught watchdogs, Columbia Journalism Review, April 13, 2016
Thank you to our panelists:
Lucy A. Dalglish became Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland in 2012. She served as executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press from 2000 to 2012. Prior to that, she was a media lawyer in the Minneapolis law firm of Dorsey & Whitney and a reporter and editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. As a reporter, she covered beats ranging from general assignment and suburbs to education and courts. During her last three years at the Pioneer Press, she served as night city editor, assistant news editor and national/ foreign editor.
As Policy Manager for Common Cause Maryland, Damon is responsible for monitoring, analyzing and campaigning for legislation relating to Maryland open governance initiatives and money-in-politics issues. Damon comes to Common Cause with a background in lobbying, campaigns, and election reform. Damon worked with U.S. Representative John Sarbanes on the bi-partisan Government By the People Act campaign. Most recently, Damon consulted companies seeking licensure under Maryland’s burgeoning medical marijuana program. Damon is a graduate of New York University and Emory Law School.
Neil H. Greenberger is in his 10th year working as the Legislative Information Officer of the Montgomery County Council. Neil previously worked for six years as the Public Information Officer for the City of Rockville and for two years in the Community Outreach Office of the Maryland State Board of Education and the Office of State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick. He spent much of his career—about 20 years—as a writer and editor for The Washington Post.
Adam Snyder is the Chief of Opinions and Advice for the Office of the Maryland Attorney General. In that capacity, he prepares the formal opinions of the Attorney General and otherwise oversees the less formal advice that the Office provides to its many State agency clients. Adam also oversees the Office’s implementation of the Public Information Act, including the updating and revision of the Office’s Public Information Act Manual. Mr. Snyder came to the Attorney General’s Office in 1997 and previously served as an Assistant Attorney General with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Civil Division.
Debbi is the Maryland Politics and Government editor for The Washington Post. She has been a reporter at the Post for 21 years. For most of that time, she was on the Post’s local staff, covering urban education, gentrification, downtown development, crime and religion.