|To Maryland Officials: Stop Hiding Our Records
Maryland's highest court reaffirmed last week what newspapers have been saying for a long time: Officials in this state do not have the right to hide their records and their documents from the people who pay their salaries.
The Court of Appeals ruled that Gov. Parris Glendening should have turned over some of his appointment calendars and phone records when The Washington Post asked for them. The Post was looking into the curious connection between a fund-raiser held for Glendening by a New Jersey health care company and the company's bid on a lucrative state contract.
The three-year-old records of a lame-duck governor don't have much news value now. Nonetheless, the court ruling serves as an exclamation point to a recent effort by newspapers to shine the light on public agencies that wrongly hide their records from the public.
A survey conducted by the Freedom of Information subcommittee of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association - to which Bay Weekly belongs - found that people requesting records from state and county government are routinely denied them.
Police agencies were the worst offenders, denying records of arrest logs nearly three-fourths of the time. School officials also routinely flunked: They declined to release school violence reports 57 percent of the time and copies of superintendents' contracts 40 percent of the time.
The survey found that police and school officials not only refused to hand over their records but questioned the auditors about why they wanted them.
In other words, the public institutions we trust to teach people to respect the law were themselves breaking the law. In case public officials have forgotten, the 30-year-old Maryland Public Information Act covers not only state government but also counties, cities, towns and school districts. It applies to all records relating to public business, including correspondence. If you want such records, government offices do not have the right to withhold them.
Elected office-holders and the bureaucrats who work with them routinely forget that they are conducting our business, not theirs. Newspapers, who are the emissaries of the public, constantly encounter officials who don't seem to understand this. They need to be reminded that their behavior is not only arrogant, it's illegal.
Maryland has a reputation as one of the states that has lagged behind in demanding ethical standards for its officials. The General Assembly, to its credit, has been working to rectify some of those problems by tightening up rules that govern the relationships between office-holders and gift-giving corporate representatives.
The General Assembly also should consider bringing Maryland into the 21st century by cracking down on abuses of the open-records law.