Marylanders who have a beef with government agencies over how they fulfill open data requests have a new remedy at their disposal – a state compliance board.
Legislation was approved to reform the state’s 45-year-old Public Information Act, creating a public information compliance board and an ombudsman to handle complaints. The board will tackle disputes over redacted words, fees and refusals to share data. Complaints were previously handled in court.
Revamping Maryland’s public information law was a “priority campaign” for the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, according to Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the organization’s executive director. She told Government Technology that the value of having an independent board to oversee public information complaints is “priceless.”
“The biggest weakness with Maryland’s Public Information Act law has been that there is no one watching the government; no one ensuring that custodians comply speedily and fairly [with] the law,” Bevan-Dangel said.
Once established, the five-member compliance board will review and rule on fee complaints over $350, according to a fact sheet on Senate Bill 695 and House Bill 755. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan will appoint the volunteer board, while the Attorney General will appoint the public access ombudsman, who will serve a four-year term, and must be a licensed attorney in Maryland.
The measures were sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin, and Delegate Bonnie Cullison, both Democrats representing Montgomery County, Md.
LaVita Tuff, policy analyst for the Sunlight Foundation, explained that the organization supports Maryland’s move because it will allow for better enforcement and assurance that the state is pushing ahead toward transparency and openness.
“We are interested in seeing states think of ways to better provide information to the public," Tuff said, "and whether that’s through a board or an ombudsman, we aren’t going to fight over [it], because this is not a one-shoe-fits-all type of issue."
The solution isn’t perfect, however. While Maryland has increased enforcement, it hasn’t solved the issue of providing quality data to requestors.
When asked whether the Sunlight Foundation was concerned that Maryland was using resources to create something to handle complaints instead of improving information flow, Tuff admitted that they discussed the point with legislators, and want data made available to cut down on public records requests -- but that will take time.
“We want people to embrace the idea of openness and being proactive, and support legislation that does that,” Tuff added. “In this instant case, we just had to put something in place that would provide a better enforcement option for the state. Even when clean and user-friendly [data] is put out there, there are some sets that some custodians will try to deny requests for.”
During negotiations on the bills, Common Cause Maryland lobbied for broader authority for the compliance board. Bevan-Dangel explained that in their original proposal, the board had the ability to make determinations on exemptions and refusals to comply with requests.
The change to an ombudsman having mediation authority on those issues was a compromise to address concerns by government stakeholders over how the board would be able to legally make determinations. Bevan-Dangel noted, however, that a study is included in the legislation to re-evaluate the division of responsibility and see if it should be changed in the future.
The legislation takes effect on Oct. 1.