Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Maryland Transportation Authority: An Opaque, Unaccountable Institution

It may come as a surprise to many Marylanders that tolls are NOT set by elected state lawmakers, but rather by an un-elected body which is appointed by the administration.  And in the past 4 years, that organization appointed by the O'Malley Brown Administration has increased tolls on Maryland's existing facilities by 75%.

The MDTA says these increases were necessary.   Likewise we are expected to believe he high rate of tolls on the ICC and the lack of a commuter plan for users of that road is necessary.  And of course, the organization says their planned budget which increases capital expenses by 48% in the next 6 years is likewise necessary. But can what they say be trusted?

The fact is the MDTA has a poor record when it comes to transparency.  The organization frequently holds closed meetings, and has been the subject of multiple open meetings act complaints.  Several publications have complained about such violations in the past:
Star Dem: MdTA Violated Open Meetings Act
"Keep Your Promise MDTA" 
DailyKos: Minutes Unseen Until This Week

And the state's Open Meeting's Compliance Board has ruled in multiple instances that the MdTA did in fact violate the Open Meetings Act (one of two critical laws governing transparency in Maryland):
"We conclude that MDTA has violated the Act with respect to the closing of the May 30, 2007 meeting to discuss matters beyond the scope of the claimed exception."
"Holding a vote to close a session in a closed session leaves the interested public in the dark on the very information that the Act requires the public body to disclose, such as which members of the public body met and why they excluded the public. The procedures in the Act provide public bodies with an efficient mechanism for recording and producing this information in documents available to the public. We urge the Authority to comply with those procedures; it did not do so here."
"For the reasons stated above and in 8 OMCB Opinions 1, we conclude that the Authority did not comply with the Act’s requirement that a public body make even old minutes available for inspection to the public"
"the Act did apply to, and was violated by, the Capital Committee."
"We find that the Peer Review Group violated the Open Meetings Act in failing to prepare and retain minutes and other documentation related to its meetings"
"We do find that the response failed to satisfy §10-502.5(c)(3)."
"We find that the Authority violated the Open Meetings Act in that copies of written closing statements were not maintained in a manner in which the body could offer public access as required under the Act."

The MDTA has similarly shown it's contempt for the other half of Maryland's open government laws, the Maryland Public Information Act (the equivalent of the federal FOIA).  Earlier this year, we discovered that basic financial data on the MDTA's website was 2 years out of date.  We requested the data from the MDTA under the Maryland Public Information Act -- and got NO RESPONSE AT ALL FOR SEVENTY DAYS,  When we finally did get an answer, we were told they couldn't give us any data from the fiscal year that ended.  Exactly one day after the Sentinel wrote a critical story on the MDTA's inability to produce this basic financial data, the data magically appeared on their website.  Only after they provided this data to the press, and about three months after we originally asked for it, did they finally got around to informing us that this data had been posted (no actual documents were ever sent to us, just posted online),

It is difficult for us to avoid drawing the conclusion that the MDTA did have at least some of the data we had asked for at an earlier time, but that the MDTA has decided they are going to be selective about who they provide data to, and who gets to see that data last, in the hope of slowing unfavorable reporting about their organization.

Let's be perfectly clear: Both the Open Meetings Act and the Maryland Public Information Act are THE LAW.  The MDTA is an organization which handles a HUGE amount of money, and un-elected bodies like this one are granted HUGE amounts of power, even maintaining their own police force.  With that power comes the obligation to be transparent, and in our opinion the MDTA has demonstrated a reluctance to meet that obligation.

Since Motorists cannot vote for those who set toll rates, that 75% increase in tolls, the high rate of toll set on the ICC, and the general lack of transparency in that organization are the direct responsibility of the O'Malley-Brown administration who appointed the MDTA's current governing body.  In our opinion this organization needs to change both culturally and organizationally, to make them respect transparency and to respect the motorists whom they ultimately work for, and these changes need to start from the top.