Monday, October 21, 2013

After Three Years, Brentwood Records Request Still Unresolved

Two Maryland Public Information Act requests we filed with the Town of Brentwood continue to be unresolved more than three years after the first request was sent to the town.

The requests were prompted by reports of erroneous speed readings by Optotraffic cameras, including ones in Brentwood, and also evidence that the speed limit boundaries on US1 had been altered prior to the deployment of a speed limit in Brentwood at that location.  The first request had been filed in October 2010.  Despite the fact that a certified mail receipt showed the request was received on October 18, 2010, and despite several inquiries we made to the town by email, no response was received for well over a year.

A second request requesting "correspondence between Brentwood and Optotraffic" pertaining to speed camera errors, as well as documents such as citation review procedures, was sent and received via certified mail in December 2011.  Once again, the request was not responded to within the time period required by law.  When the town eventually sent a letter in reply many months later in June 2012, they still provided no records and "neither granted nor formally denied" the request, and instead sent a fee schedule including a $200/hour fee for attorney services, with no total payable amount and no guarantee any documents would actually be provided if this were paid.  A response by us to this letter went unanswered for many more months.  In 2013 several letters were exchanged with the town over the matter, at which point the $200/hour fee was repeated by the town.  Brentwood provided few pages of budget information and the total number of tickets they issued, which was not part of the requests, and did not provide any "correspondence" or other documents we had actually requested.

More than 1000 days after the first request was received by the town, we filed the complaint in Circuit Court.  Filing such a complaint is not something we would take lightly.  We had sought to exhaust every other possible recourse before doing so, and those efforts are well documented in our complaint.  Simply put, it isn't supposed to require going to court or having teams of attorneys to obtain public records.  Anyone is supposed to be able to ask for them and get a response compliant with the Act within 30 days.

Brentwood has since filed an answer to the complaint, in which they admitted many of our assertions.  In their answer the town admitted that they did not respond within the timelines required by the MPIA, and that they 'neither granted nor formally denied' our request even in their 2012 letter.... about 20 months after the first request was received.

This is unfortunately only one of many examples of how poor compliance by local governments with the state's open records laws.  Indeed, we have seen this situation grow worse this year.  Last year gave Maryland D- on it's "corruption risk report card" and an "F" on "Public Access to Information".  Maryland placed 40th out of 50 states in this ranking.  Certain public officials, such as Doug Gansler, have promised initiatives to improve government transparency.  Such initiatives definitely have merit.  Unfortunately the actions of the Office of Attorney General during Gansler's term does not, in our experience based on several interactions with the OAG, demonstrate a commitment to open government. In our opinion based on prior experience, the OAG is more likely to assist a local or state agency in circumventing the MPIA than they are to investigate an instance where a local government has violated the law.  And if the OAG, which publishes the state's manual on the Public Information Act, won't get involved in a positive way then what other state agency will?  Until such time as public officials currently in state office use the authority given to them to enforce the state's open records laws, it will continue to be up to private organizations and individuals to take matters into their own hands.