Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Fees help keep records private

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The request seemed reasonable enough. How much had various government agencies spent on employee travel over the past three years?

What The Gazette found was that some agencies were willing to produce the records speedily. Others, however, wanted considerable sums of money — one asked for $1,100 and another more than $2,400 — to cover copying and research charges.

‘‘It’s clearly meant to dissuade people from reading the information,” said Al Tompkins, a faculty member of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a journalism school based in Florida.

In a day when the Internet makes more information more readily available, at least two agencies may be using charges for copying and research, allowed under Maryland’s Public Information Act, to inhibit access.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said it would charge The Gazette $1,100 for copies of its travel records — $200 for copying 600 pages and $900 for research. And the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission wants $2,406.17 — $562.50 for copying 5,625 pages and $1,843.67 for the research.

The newspaper has objected to the fees.

Nancy Lineman, the Park and Planning Commission’s chief of community outreach and media relations, said the fees are within what is allowed by Maryland law.

Jim Neustadt, director of communications and community relations at WSSC, said the utility is a ‘‘transparent organization” with no objection to providing the documents.

‘‘But we have to make sure the money of ratepayers is properly spent and the time of WSSC employees is properly used,” Neustadt said.

Lineman and Neustadt both the newspaper seek a waiver of the fees, as allowed by the Public Information Act.

Lloyd Batzler, managing editor of The Gazette’s parent newspaper group, Post-Newsweek Media, said the fees are ‘‘worrisome.”

‘‘There is time and effort involved, no doubt about it, and taxpayers foot the bill for that,” Batzler said. ‘‘But for some citizens, or homeowners groups searching for records, the fees suggested in some cases could be out of reach and raise the perception that [the agencies] are trying to use cost as a barrier to access.”

In separate e-mail messages to The Gazette, representatives for the WSSC and Park and Planning said several staff members are needed to process the requests. At WSSC, it would take five people working 30 hours to pull the records. At Park and Planning, the research would involve six staff members.

‘‘If they can’t do that in less than two hours, they aren’t doing a very good job of record keeping,” said Bobbie Walton, the former executive director of Common Cause Maryland who is now a board member of the group.

She likened the request to the kind of information private businesses would have to produce for an audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

Poynter’s Tompkins also said the information should be readily available because government travel is paid for by the public’s dime.

‘‘A democracy runs best when the system is as transparent as possible,” he said. ‘‘It’s when I can’t see all the parts of the deal that I get suspicious.”

The Gazette’s Public Information Act request was sent in May. Besides WSSC and Park and Planning, the request involved the county government, Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery County Circuit Court and Montgomery College.

The request sought the reimbursed expense records covering the period of July 1, 2004, through May 15, 2007, for high-level administrators, including department directors, superintendents, Circuit Court judges and their assistants.

The request also sought travel policies and expense reimbursement policies.

The college has provided its policies and a summary of the expenses. The court has provided its policies and said it would provide the expenses for a $125 copying fee. The school system has not yet replied.

The county government has not provided its documents, but Deputy Information Director Donna Bigler said they would arrive in the next few weeks.

The county is not going to charge The Gazette.

‘‘If [an information request] is an amount of work that we can fit into with our existing staff during regular working hours, we try to fulfill it without charging because we understand it’s in the public interest,” Bigler said.

The county could charge, however, if computer programming would be required, she said.

Bigler said her job is to work with reporters to organize their requests to achieve a cost savings.

‘‘The key is communication. We always take pride in being an open and accessible government, and we’ve always had that goal. There are very few things that we are required to protect under the Maryland Public Information Act,” she said.

Staff Writer Janel Davis contributed to this report.