Bill would force quicker government response to records requests

Bill would force quicker government response to records requests

Montgomery school board supports; deadline would change from 30 to 7 days

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The Montgomery County Board of Education supports a state bill to cut the deadline for public agencies to respond to requests for public information by more than two-thirds.

The bill, sponsored by Baltimore County Del. Michele Guyton, would require agencies, including county governments and public school systems, to produce requested public records within seven days. Current law allows up to 30 days.

“When you look at Maryland, the [Public Information Act] response time is one of the longest, if not the longest, in the nation,” said Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. “There are many, many other states able to turn requests around in a quicker period of time.”

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires public agencies to respond to records requests within five business days of a person’s submission. Agencies can request an extension of up to seven business days to fulfill the request.

The deadline is five business days in West Virginia and in Pennsylvania, which allows a possible extension of 30 days.

Maryland also allows an extension of up to 30 days, with the applicant’s request. It requires that a government respond within 10 business days if denying a request.

Montgomery County’s school board this month voted unanimously to support the proposed changes, with the caveat that the state provides money to hire more employees to process requests for information.

The rationale, they said, was a consistent increase in information requests over the past four years.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the school district received 137 requests, and in Fiscal Year 2019, it received 216, a roughly 37% increase, according to MCPS staff members.

“I think we need to convey the number of MPIAs that we have,” school board member Pat O’Neill said. “I would imagine we’re head and shoulders above other districts.”

Halfway through Fiscal Year 2020, MCPS has received 129 public information requests, compared to 97 through the same time last year.

The requests last fiscal year yielded “thousands of pages of documents and required thousands of hours of employee time for more than 100 employees across the system,” Danielle Susskind, coordinator of legislative affairs for the school board, said during a meeting this month.

“They meet the deadline as fast as they can, but with the increasing volume, we’d need financial support (from the state),” Susskind said.

In Fiscal Year 2019, when MCPS received 216 records requests, Howard County Public Schools received 222, according to its online tracking system. The Howard County school district, with more than 100,000 fewer students, has received 312 requests in the current fiscal year — 183 more than MCPS.

Lucy Caldwell, spokeswoman for Fairfax County Public Schools, wrote in an email last week that the school district received 390 records requests in 2019.

FCPS has one full-time staff member and one part-time staff member who handle records requests, Caldwell wrote. They work closely with the school district’s legal team to ensure what is released complies with state and national child privacy laws.

“Due to privacy concerns surrounding children (under 18), student records, and potentially sensitive personnel (HR) matters, the majority of FCPS FOIA requests by their very nature are typically complex,” Caldwell wrote.

Snyder said that since the Maryland bill was introduced, custodians of public records have “come out of the woodwork” in opposition, anxious about a tighter deadline to fulfill requests.

“On a practical level, I can understand if your whole setup is around 30 days, it is a radical shift to go to seven,” Snyder said. “Is it possible? Anything’s possible. There’s an initial, painful push to get that down, but then it just turns into implementing records management best practices.

“As for the legislative process, I would imagine there’s always room for negotiation and compromise.”

Snyder said she expects two more bills about public records to be introduced this week in the state legislature. One would further clarify some of the law’s definitions and lower the threshold at which the state’s Public Information Act Compliance Board can rule on disputes.

The three bills would work together to strengthen the state’s open records law, Snyder said.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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