FOX45 Investigates Transparency of Maryland Agencies and Public Information
Updated: Thursday, October 3 2013, 11:42 AM EDT
One of the most critical parts of a journalist's job is holding public officials accountable. To do that reporters need, and often ask for, what's known as public information from the government.
Lately FOX45 has encountered some state agencies that don't want to provide - or make it very difficult to obtain - the information reporters need to report back to the public. It prompted a closer look at the state's transparency laws.
During attempts by FOX45 to get basic information about topics such as how tax dollars are being spent, government officials said the information was either too costly to produce or simply secret.
In one example, the state highway administration was asked about a growing expense called liquidated date damages, charge backs to private contractors who take too long to finish the job. The state denied the request -- even after FOX45 produced a document which revealed just one contractor could owe the state $9 million.
In another instance FOX45 asked the city police department for copies of so-called after action reports which detail police-involved shootings. This request was denied by attorneys for the police department who said the reports are in fact personnel records and therefore secret.
But the biggest obstacle for obtaining public information are often the offices of Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler where many of FOX45's requires are vetted, and often returned with steep price tags that total in the tens of thousands of dollars. It's a stark contrast to Gansler's campaign rhetoric about transparency.
When FOX45 asked the Attorney General's office for a list of public information requests received in the past two years and how much it charged to fulfill them, the request came with a $2,500 price tag just to find out.
When FOX45 asked Gansler about the difficulties in getting information from his agency he responded, "The fact of the matter is you shouldn't have to make a public information request for a lot of material that should be public anyway."
Advocates point out that the state recently received a grade of "D" for transparency. In fact, Common Cause Maryland Executive Director Jennifer Bevan-Dangel said the transparency laws favor the state.
"It's very easy for an agency to come and inflate the cost where the average citizen can't afford it," Dangel said.
It's this lack of basic openness that state Senator Bill Ferguson says he wants to fix.
"Right now we're in the process of putting together a comprehensive transparency law," he said. Ferguson said he plans to introduce legislation during the upcoming general assembly session in January to strengthen the state's public information law. It's an idea that advocates say is essential to keeping our democracy healthy.