Nobody likes being left in the dark. That expression conveys a certain exclusion — somebody knows something that you don’t. Far too often, that’s how many of us feel when we are dealing with state and local governments. Who is making important decisions and how are they making them? We’d all like to be “in the know,” but getting information is not always as simple and straightforward as it should be. Sunshine Week, celebrated annually this week, focuses attention on shining the bright light of transparency into those dark corners of government.
While Maryland has taken some significant steps to improve public information access in the recent year, there is still much work to do. Therefore, the timing of Sunshine Week, which falls in the midst of the 90-day General Assembly session, is well placed to highlight the opportunity for the state to make continued improvements. Founded in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week promotes open government and public access to information.
In Annapolis, the Marylanders for Open Government network, which includes more than 30 organizations, advocates for state laws that strengthen government transparency. Members of the network include environmental and public health advocates, labor and good government groups, consumer advocates and social justice organizations.
And there is plenty of change needed — a 2015 report by the State Integrity Project ranks Maryland 41st out of 50 states, with a grade of “F” for access to public information. This is an embarrassment, and Marylanders deserve better. Fortunately, there are signs of improvement.
Last year, the General Assembly passed the first comprehensive update to Maryland’s public information laws in 45 years, finally bringing our state into the 21st Century. The new law improved oversight by establishing a new Public Information Act Compliance Board and an ombudsman to act as a mediator. It also limited and standardized the fees for public information requests and set clear timelines that agencies would need to meet.
As these measures are implemented, we can expect to see our public information procedures improve, as well as our grade from the State Integrity Project. However, there is much work still to do.
This year, the Marylanders for Open Government network has three-point legislative agenda which seeks to improve other aspects of law, including increasing transparency in the budget process, preserving Marylanders’ rights to access police body camera footage and strengthening the state’s Open Meetings Act.
In Maryland, the Board of Public Works is able to make significant budget cuts that affect state services, employment and the economy with little review by legislators or the public. The board is made up of the governor, the comptroller and the treasurer.
Currently, the board can cut individual budget items by up to 25 percent without any prior notice. We are supporting the Board of Public Works Transparency Act of 2016 (House Bill 368/Senate Bill 370) to require at least 10 days’ notice for significant budget cuts that affect state services, state employees and funding initiatives.
Police body cameras have been a controversial issue, but many jurisdictions now appear poised to implement them in their law enforcement agencies. We oppose any efforts to further restrict Marylanders’ rights to access footage that police record of them during interactions with law enforcement. Maryland’s current public information laws already provide exemptions to sufficiently guarantee privacy and curb costs.
Currently, Maryland’s Open Meetings law has limited meaningful enforcement and a large number of exemptions that close the public out of decision-making. In the long term, we must create stronger penalties for violations, evaluate and potentially limit existing exemptions and clarify training requirements.
Proposed legislation (House Bill 1088/Senate Bill 754) enhances the training requirements for the Open Meetings Act and standardizes the training curriculum so there is better consistency.
The three priorities described above are certainly not the entirety of important open government legislation being considered during this General Assembly session. But, taken together, they represent important steps to significantly improve access to public information in Maryland.
During Sunshine Week, please help us continue to shine the light of transparency on our government.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Rebecca Snyder is the executive director of the Maryland, Delaware and D.C. Press Association. Her email is email@example.com. Jennifer Bevan-Dangel is the executive director of Common Cause Maryland. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.