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Mobtown Beat

Under Wraps

Legislature Mulls Bills to Keep State Business Out of the Public Eye

By Van Smith | Posted 2/13/2002

Want to find out how the Maryland Port Administration (MPA) is using tax dollars to drum up business for the Port of Baltimore? You can forget about it, if the MPA has its way in the General Assembly.

Or maybe you'd like to review state records dealing with public security--safety records at a power plant, say, or the routes traveled through Maryland communities by trucks carrying loads of high-level radioactive waste. Better move fast: The Glendening administration and a host of legislators are seeking to seal off any documents whose contents are deemed by the bureaucrat overseeing them to present a danger to the public if released.

We are living in the Information Age, it's said, wherein access to information supposedly confers power. Yet Maryland's public-records law is rife with exemptions, spelling out conditions under which public information may be kept from the public. And this year, Free State lawmakers want to take even more information out of public reach.

"Maryland is one of three hot spots across the country right now, in terms of trying to shut down" access to public information, says Ian Marquand, a TV reporter with KPAX in Missoula, Mont., and chairperson of the Freedom of Information Committee of the national Society of Professional Journalists. In Florida, fear of terrorism has lawmakers attempting to limit the flow of public information that could be construed as affecting security; there are several pieces of legislation pending. And Indiana's legislature is angling to override a gubernatorial veto of a bill that would allow it to close meetings and withhold documents from the public.

As in Florida, most of the move in Maryland to curb the flow of information stems from Sept. 11. The Port Administration's bid to shield its activities, however, is prompted by economic motives--specifically the increasingly cutthroat competition among major ports for shipping business.

House of Delegates Bill 254 and its sister measure, Senate Bill 84, would keep the public from viewing records pertaining to rates negotiated for MPA services; proposals for attracting, keeping, or expanding port businesses; and research compiled to help the port "assess its competitive position with respect to other ports." In testimony before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee Jan. 31, James White, the MPA's executive director, called the information clampdown a "much-needed business tool." Competing ports and potential port contractors are currently able to use Maryland's public-records law to dig up inside information on MPA's operations, he said.

"We end up negotiating with our cards on the table, face up, while theirs are face down," White told the committee. "It undercuts our business and marketing strategies."

White has some crucial legislative support in his corner. State Sen. Thomas Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), chairperson of the Senate Finance Committee, gives the bill his full backing--even skipping a taping session for a TV appearance to testify at last month's hearing. "You know how much I want this bill," he told the committee, "if I would come down here instead of be on television."

But Marquand contends such measures are likely to backfire on their backers. "It'll have [their] full support until rampant fraud is found at the port," he says. "When there's a hue and cry down the road and people are asking, 'How did this happen?' the answer will be, 'Because you folks made the port's business activities confidential.' It's just asking for trouble."

"This bill virtually guarantees a scandal," says Charles Davis, head of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "The first time there is a sniff of impropriety, people are going to come down like a ton of bricks asking for these records, but they will be secret."

In testifying against the bill, James Doyle, Annapolis lobbyist for the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, did not invoke the specter of scandal, but said simply that government business should be done openly. MPA is made up of "public people carrying out public business with public dollars," Doyle said, so "it's wrong to make their records private."

Where the port bill seeks to bar public access to information about the use of tax dollars, the public-security bill deals with a much broader set of information that, given the public's post-Sept. 11 security consciousness, may prove easier for legislators to justify taking out of the public domain.

The bill--HB 297/SB 240--is an outgrowth of a study group convened by Gov. Parris Glendening to find ways to increase public safety in the face of terrorist threats. Among the suggestions was a bill to amend the state's records law to prevent sensitive information from falling into the wrong hands. The bill's language is simple: "A custodian may deny inspection of a public record that contains information disclosing or relating to public security if the custodian determines that inspection of the information would constitute a risk to the public or to public security."

With hearings scheduled for Feb. 13 (House Commerce and Government Matters Committee) and Feb. 14 (Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee), the bill hasn't yet had a chance to generate much controversy. But the University of Missouri's Davis warns that it is "an unbelievably broad piece of legislation." He contends the measure puts too much discretion in the hands of government officials who "suffer from an ownership delusion when it comes to information that's not theirs.

"It's like handing the keys to your Ferrari to your 12-year-old kid," Davis says. "They are going to see security demons in things that have absolutely nothing to do with security."

Glendening spokesperson Michelle Byrnie says the governor "understands the concern [about the bill's broad language] and has said that he is willing to listen to open-government advocates and is open to suggestions on how to narrow the language. It will be amended with narrower language, there's no question about that."

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