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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Open government for more than just a week

Sunshine Week

Every year around this time, when media organizations mark Sunshine Week to highlight the importance of open government, the dominant public response seems to be a collective yawn.

If you did a poll, most people would agree government records and meetings should be open.

But when public officials keep things secret, in defiance of at least the spirit of the law, or when shortcomings of the laws are made apparent, there’s usually no public response.

Aside from a few dedicated citizens, no one seems to care about a lack of sunshine until it affects them personally.

I’m reminded of what happened after Crofton, Md., teenager Christopher Jones was killed last year. At a community forum, residents aired concerns about violence.

Scores of people applauded when others demanded more information from the county police chief, asking him why they hadn’t known about repeated fights, a man with a gun caught in front of an elementary school and reports of gang activity.

Sure, I was thinking in the audience, now you care. As I wrote in a column at the time, The Capital had been fighting police for months over their new policy of keeping all reports secret.

Yet, after that column, I didn’t receive a single response from a person outraged or even concerned about the secrecy.

“It’s really hard to get the public motivated,” said Jim Snider, of Severna Park, who has pushed for more openness in the county school system.

The Public Information Act, the state law that makes most public documents public record, is used often by residents seeking information. But when it counts, it and other laws often fall short.

The county Health Department receives about 1,800 PIA requests a year for documents like food-inspection and recreational water-quality reports, and well-water and percolation tests.

About 85 percent of those requests are from everyday residents, not journalists or lawyers. County spokesman David Abrams said many are probably from people thinking of buying a home or checking on some issue in their own neighborhoods.

The county public school system received 96 formal PIA requests between August 2008 and Dec. 1, 2009, about 60 percent of them from reporters, said system spokesman Bob Mosier. Many of the requests from parents are for routine documents, in some cases things that are already online.

Phill McGowan, a city of Annapolis spokesman, said most of the 29 requests received since July 2009 were from attorneys or businesses with some interest in the matters.

“It’s not just out of curiosity,” McGowan said.

There are a few citizens who take advantage of the PIA, like the woman who routinely asks to check the county’s file on the illegal home built on a Magothy River island or the one who rather ambitiously asked for “all documents related to Rock Creek in Pasadena, Maryland.”

But when the public really needs information – as in the Jones slaying and the police response to teen gangs – the law fails us. Last week, county police denied The Capital the report on Christopher’s death because it involves a juvenile.

A section of state law reads, “A police record concerning a child is confidential” – a breathtakingly broad provision that prevents any public oversight whatsoever of how police investigate juvenile crime.

Several delegates are pushing for laws to ensure greater legislative transparency and force governments to turn over documents in electronic formats. But the latter bill has been killed before because of resistance from state agencies, who complain that it would be a burden.

And it could be killed again if no one speaks up except journalists and civic do-gooders.

The Open Meetings Act is meant to ensure that meetings of public bodies, like government documents, are open. But the sad truth is that 99 percent of public meetings are open – and most of the time, no one cares. Most government committees meet in empty rooms.

“It’s particularly frustrating when people castigate us when we do something wrong … and yet, they’re never there when we’re doing it,” said Annapolis Alderman Ross Arnett, D-Ward 8.

If people don’t show up, Arnett said, “they’re sending a message to the council and to the mayor that we can do whatever we want because no one gives a hoot.”

It’s no good getting mad when it’s too late – when your taxes go up and you think, “What happened?” Or a child is killed, and you hear of gang activity the police and schools knew about and wonder, “Why is this the first I’m hearing of it?”

Here’s why: You didn’t care.

Next week isn’t Sunshine Week. But the need for sunshine will still be there. Where will you be?

Eric Hartley is a metro columnist for The Capital of Annapolis, Md. Reprinted with permission of Capital Gazette Communications.