For the record: When the public wants information, government must listen -- Gazette.Net


Related story: Sunshine laws: a light on government

Only one Montgomery County municipality — Rockville — received more than 50 formal Maryland Public Information Act requests in fiscal year 2012; many received none. Local leaders credit a general openness of government for the low numbers.

But a few organizations that make multiple requests under the state law disagreed, saying it’s actually time and money that keeps them from filing more requests.

Under the Maryland Public Information Act, government records are considered public unless they fall under certain exceptions.

Montgomery County received more than 4,200 requests in fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30, 2012. Nearly 3,500 of those were inquiries about permits, such as for building, use and occupancy, and sediment control.

As part of Sunshine Week, a nationwide focus on open-government issues, The Gazette asked local governments about the number of information requests they received in fiscal 2012.

Local leaders said their practice is to provide information when someone asks for it, without requiring a formal written request.

“We’re pretty open with our operations and records, so residents usually don’t feel the need to go that far,” Laytonsville Mayor Dan Prats said.

Laytonsville received only one request in the year — from a researcher, Prats said.

Poolesville Town Manager Wade Yost said his town also is open to providing information to those who ask. The town attorney is consulted if there are any concerns that the information may be sensitive or personal, Yost said.

The towns of Poolesville, Somerset and Brookeville reported that they received no requests in fiscal 2012.

Michael Acierno, president of the Brookville Commission, said he is not aware of any public information requests coming in since he joined the commission in 2004.

“Honestly, it’s a lot easier if people just ask for what they need,” Montgomery County spokeswoman Donna Bigler said. “When they file an MPIA request, they tend to ask for more [information]. Then, it becomes more difficult.”

Bigler, whose office handles only media requests, said that often the information people are looking for is readily available, making it easier to respond to informal requests.

However, some of the people and groups making requests don’t always find government as open as the institutions claim.

“They throw roadblocks up and citizens have to persevere, and I think they are thinking most citizens will not persevere,” said Paula Bienenfeld, who is vice president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation and active with the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County. “They feel they are running the government and think citizens should go along with it. In the end, they hold all the cards. I think that is the governing philosophy of the county.”

Under the PIA, government bodies have up to 30 days to provide information that’s requested. If the request is denied, the applicant must be contacted immediately and given a written explanation within 10 working days.

“But they don’t always respond,” Bienenfeld said. “It’s up to the citizen to pursue it and sometimes they don’t get back or say it will cost for you to get the information.”

Bienenfeld said she files about 10 to 12 PIA requests a year.

Members of the Parents’ Coalition and the Civic Federation were some of the few repeat MPIA requesters that were not media outlets. Collectively, Parents’ Coalition members made 23 of the 79 requests sent to Montgomery County Public Schools in fiscal 2012.

Time and money keep organizations from filing more requests, Bienenfeld said.

Government bodies may charge search fees to cover the cost of gathering public information, minus the first two hours, which are free.

After that, the school system charges for staff time and printing costs, if applicable, spokesman Dana Tofig said.

Both MCPS and Montgomery County calculate the cost using the hourly salary for the staff member who filled the request. Tofig said the lowest-paid MCPS employee who has access to the information in a department is put on the job.

Government bodies may charge a “reasonable” fee for copying records. The law does not define “reasonable,” leaving it to government bodies to decide.

MCPS charges 15 cents per page, Tofig said.

Montgomery County also charges 15 cents a page for standard copies, but more for large-size plans, certified copies and microfilm and microfiche reproductions.

The Montgomery County Planning Department charges 10 cents per page and an hourly fee of $51.50 for staff time to gather information.

Types of requests

Tofig said the school system receives some common requests every year, such as magnet-program acceptance, high-school and middle-school fees, and salary information. Others are more specific, such as school-site selection, he said.

Tofig, the director of the office that receives requests, said he and Superintendent Joshua P. Starr respond to requests as quickly as possible, with limited staff to do so.

Of the 79 requests in 2012, the school system responded to 72 within 30 days. But Tofig argued that 77 requests were delivered “on time” — the school system requested and received extensions on two requests and had to wait for payment for three others.

Of the 4,221 requests sent to the county, 3,474 went to the Department of Permitting Services, seeking permit documents, said Reginald Jetter, chief of the department’s Division of Customer Service.

To Jetter’s knowledge, all of those requests were fulfilled within 30 days.

Stan Edwards, chief of the Division of Environmental Policy and Compliance for the county Department of Environmental Protection, said almost all of the 217 requests received by DEP were seeking information about environmental assessments. Edwards said his division generally can fulfill those requests within the 30 days.

Bienenfeld said government could reduce its burden on citizens by making information more accessible.

“In practice, the county could put the data up and that would mean the citizens don’t have to ask for the data,” she said.

Both Montgomery County and MCPS have begun publishing data online. The school system has started putting procurements and independent activity fund reports on its website. The county has launched, where it posts sets of data, such as county salaries and food inspections.

The county site has only been active a few months, Bigler said, but just having the salary information available online has reduced the number of requests.

MCPS experienced similar results. Tofig said there are fewer requests for the types of documents now online.

On the rise

Generally, the number of requests governments answered appears to be rising.

Public information requests in Rockville doubled from 30 in fiscal 2011 to 60 in fiscal 2012, according to information from city staff. About one-fifth of the 2012 requests came from the media.

In the last two budget years, the school system’s Department of Public Information and Web Services received 79 and 85 requests, respectively. That’s up from 68 in fiscal 2008 and 66 in fiscal 2009.

Tofig said he thinks the public knows it has access to school-system data.

“Given the number of requests we have, I think people are fairly aware,” he said.

However, Carol Rubin, associate general counsel for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said the Montgomery Planning Department has received fewer requests from the public and the press the last few years.

The Montgomery County Planning Department received 11 formal requests in fiscal 2012 on project plans. White Flint redevelopment and future development on Batchellors Forest Road in Olney were among the topics requested, Rubin said.

About half of the 103 requests the media made to Montgomery County in fiscal 2012 took more than the allotted 30 days, Bigler said.

“At least half are complicated enough that we almost always know up front it will take a while,” she said. “The goal is to get the information out as quickly as we can.”

Written requests from the media tend to seek vast amounts of countywide information, housed in hard files, Bigler said.

Additionally, she said, requesters will ask for “every” document, making the request more difficult to fulfill.

“When they start including everything, you’ve got to make sure you have delved into every department and agency and make sure something was not overlooked,” Bigler said. “It is easier if you ask for what you need. It is harder if you want every document or correspondence.”

Staff writers Agnes Blum, Jen Bondeson, Sylvia Carignan, Terri Hogan, Daniel Leaderman, Peggy McEwan, Lindsay A. Powers, Kara Rose and Elizabeth Waibel contributed to this report.