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Mobtown Beat

Port Authority

Legislature Shields Port from Public Scrutiny

By Van Smith | Posted 4/10/2002

A Glendening-administration bill to keep the public from seeing how the Maryland Port Administration (MPA) spends public money to win new business has passed both houses of the General Assembly and now awaits the governor's signature.

Touted by MPA officials as an essential economic-development tool designed to keep competitors from prying into the port's business, the measure was decried by open-government advocates as an overreaching clampdown on information about how the government spends taxpayer money (Mobtown Beat, Feb. 13).

Though amended to permit representatives of state employees unions access to what will soon be confidential documents, the bill is true to its original intent--to exempt MPA administrators from having to share with the public information dealing with port contracts or research and analysis about maritime commerce.

There was virtually no opposition to the bill in either house of the legislature, with only four delegates and two state senators opposing the bill. "I see this as the beginning of an effort to close public access to records by government in general," Sen. George Della Jr. (D-Baltimore City/County) says of his "protest vote" against the measure. "We're running government here, folks; we're supposed to be open. It's because of things like this that people don't trust government."

"There are many folks who feel that access to public records is a right which should not be taken away from them," says Del. James Crouse, an Upper Eastern Shore Democrat and one of the four dissenters in the House. "This is especially true for those who watch the activities of the port and attempt to validate the information which is put out by the port."

MPA's pursuit of continued dredging for shipping routes through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal has been particularly controversial in Crouse's district. John Williams, a retired chemical engineer from Elkton and an anti-dredging activist, says he's found significant mathematical errors in the analyses of maritime traffic that port officials have been using to justify more dredging. When the MPA bill takes effect in June, Williams says, he'll no longer be able to do such independent reviews. "We think the Port Administration with this bill is out to cut us and anyone else like us off from access to data that would show their assertions to be inadequate," he says.

Port spokesperson Kate Phillips says Williams need not worry. "We're not closing all of our books," she says. "But we are a public entity that competes every day with private entities on behalf of the citizens of Maryland. We feel we shouldn't have to reveal our cards at the negotiating table while others can keep them hidden." Phillips says the bill adequately addressed the port's need to withhold public information, though she "can't say definitively" that the port won't return to the legislature for more exemptions in the future.

James Doyle, who as lobbyist for the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association tried to derail the bill, sees it as an ominous precedent. "More bills to give agencies blanket denial for requests for public information will come up, and we can't keep losing them," he says. The difficulty in opposing this bill, Doyle maintains, is that legislators routinely defer to an entity seen as emblematic of Maryland's seagoing past and its economic future.

"When you're talking about the port, you're talking about motherhood and God," he says. "And there was the overwhelming feeling that the port should get its way."

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