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Home > Publications > Quill > Wrangle that wiggle room away from agencies


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Monday, August 25, 2008
Wrangle that wiggle room away from agencies

Jim Lee

If your state’s open meetings and public records laws are anything like the laws in Maryland, there’s probably a lot of gray area that provides wiggle room for agencies and government bodies looking to delay or outright deny public access.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

In Maryland, the state attorney general’s office created a guide, which it hands out at municipal government training sessions, outlining the “best practices” for responding to records requests.

The guide suggests government bodies have a clear process for responding to records requests, that they provide training to frontline personnel and that they respond promptly, either by providing the records or by saying why they aren’t available.

Bob McDonald, chief counsel of opinions, advice and legislation at the Maryland attorney general’s office, said local government attorneys and the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association assisted in putting the pamphlet together.

“The feedback has been positive from government employees who have attended the training and used the pamphlet; its recommendations are often quoted back to us,” McDonald said. “Our experience also led us to devise another short pamphlet in Q-and-A form for members of the public who wish to make PIA requests. The Q-and-A form has been distributed to public libraries and is also available on our Web site.”

Collaborative efforts can also be helpful in nudging government bodies toward better practices.

In one city in our coverage area a few years back, officials refused to release a copy of the proposed budget before the scheduled public hearing.

We try to write stories ahead of time, letting readers know of the major changes in their municipality’s budget. In this case, we wrote a story letting folks know they couldn’t see the budget. On the opinion page, we editorialized about the topic, pointing out how other government bodies didn’t have an issue with providing copies beforehand. We also pointed out the ludicrousness of having a public hearing on something that no one was allowed to see before the meeting.

City officials agreed it was a mistake, and now they routinely make the document available beforehand.

If there are several government bodies in your coverage area, leveraging the best practices employed by some to get others to be more responsive can work at times, too.

For instance, under Maryland law, governments aren’t required to provide an agenda for meetings. But by pointing out that some municipalities post agendas on their Web sites, use e-mail alerts to contact residents who sign up or use other methods to encourage public participation, we can often get others onboard with the practice.

Who will go to a meeting if they don’t know what topics are going to be covered? Worse, how can elected officials be expected to come prepared to discuss topics if there is no agenda?

By asking these types of questions and using positive examples found elsewhere in your coverage area, you may be able to convince governments to do things that, while maybe not required by law, are just good practices.

McDonald also suggested looking at the Maryland attorney general’s “Open Government” Web pages for ideas and “to the extent they find the materials helpful, provide them to their own AG’s office to open a discussion on the creation of similar materials. Of course, every state’s law will be somewhat different, so our materials could not be used in another state without some revision,” he said.

Creating an Open Government page on your own Web site can be another useful tool for readers and may prompt more openness.

For example, if you link to several government bodies that provide agendas, notices of special meetings, contracts open for bidding and other useful information, readers of other communities might begin pressuring their community leaders to put up similar information.

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