2021 | Government

Here’s how governments responded to inquiries about tracking public records

Read how 31 state agencies, counties, municipalities and school districts did in Sunshine Week survey

The Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association surveyed 31 state agencies, counties, municipalities and school systems in February about Maryland Public Information Act requests they received the last three years. The study was meant to examine what effects the COVID-19 pandemic might have had on request caseloads and their response times for sharing public records.

Our first question was whether the entities changed their policies or practices during the pandemic, as many employees worked remotely.

None of the respondents said they made any official changes other than the leeway granted to them in an executive order by Gov. Larry Hogan, who suspended all government legal deadlines until the 30th day after Maryland’s state of emergency ends.

In the second part of the inquiry, MDDC asked each government agency:

  • How many PIA requests it received
  • Average response time for filling or denying the requests
  • Longest response time for filling or denying the requests

We asked for information covering March 5, 2020, when Maryland reported its first three cases of COVID-19, to Feb. 1, 2021. To compare, we also asked for information from that same period for 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Our request to each government entity was made under the Public Information Act.

Just five of those 31 government entities directly and fully provided an answer for three years of average response times — the fundamental underlying question in the MDDC study — making it impossible to assess any meaningful trends.

A sixth entity provided data in a form that allowed us to easily calculate the average response times, so that was counted as meeting our request.

In many cases, though, because the answers we sought were not contained in an existing document, the government body denied the request.

All summaries listed here about the government bodies’ responses to our inquiries are based on a 30-day cutoff after the request was made — the PIA deadline they would have had to follow if there were no executive order. If an entity provided no information by that time, it was counted as not meeting the request, regardless of whether it acknowledged the request.

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The following are summaries of the response we received from each government entity included in the MDDC study:

 

COUNTIES, CITIES, TOWNS

 

• Anne Arundel CountyNo response to request through online form

 

• Baltimore CityReplied that it had no records related to the request

 

• Baltimore CountyReplied that response might take longer than 10 days, then did not follow up

 

• Caroline CountyProvided all information

Number of requests:
44 in 2018-19
38 in 2019-20
20 in 2020-21

Average response:
4 days in 2018-19
8 days in 2019-20
6 days in 2020-21

Longest response:
28 days in 2018-19
11 days in 2019-20
9 days in 2020-21

 

• Cecil CountyProvided some information

Number of requests:
63 in 2020-21

Average response:
6 days in 2020-21

Longest response:
18 days in 2020-21

Said it had no documents related to the two earlier time periods.

 

• City of FrederickProvided some information, but said it was probably incomplete

Number of requests:
35 in 2018-19
244 in 2019-20
90 in 2020-21

However, the city said the 2018-19 figure “seems incorrect.” The city’s legal department took over tracking on Sept. 1, 2019, after a public information officer position was eliminated. No records are available from before that transition.

The city does not track average or longest response time.

 

• Garrett County – Provided most information, but did not do calculations

Initially, provided records by calendar years, instead of by time periods we requested. Later reworked charts to closely match time periods (all of March was listed, which was not what we requested), but did not calculate averages. However, it was possible for us to calculate rough averages based on the data we received.

Number of requests:
15 in 2018-19
18 in 2019-20
35 in 2020-21

Average (approximate):
8 days in 2018-19
7 days in 2019-20
5 days in 2020-21

Longest response: 28 days in each time period

 

• City of HagerstownInitially said it would try to gather information, then declined

The first response was that the city would try to gather information, but would likely charge a fee. The response said the city “will have to review every single PIA request the City of Hagerstown has handled from March 5, 2018, to February 1, 2021, in order to produce the answers you’re seeking.” It will take even more time because our request periods cross calendar years.

Several days later, the city sent another message saying it had no documents that meet the request.

 

• Howard CountyProvided spreadsheets it uses to track requests, but did not do calculations

It provided spreadsheets for calendar years 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, with detailed records listing: each requestor’s name, organization, date request received, when response acknowledging receipt was sent, record requested, the county employee contacted for help and when, overall response sent, whether a response was sent within 10 business days, if records were provided, whether there was a fee, what the fee was.

Did not answer the questions on average and longest response, though.

Number of requests:
493 in 2018-19
631 in 2019-20
630 in 2020-21

 

• Town of La Plata Said it had no records

 

• Montgomery CountyAcknowledged request, then did not follow up

 

• Prince George’s County — Acknowledged first request, and acknowledged second question about status of request, then did not follow up

 

• City of Rockville — Said request will take more than 30 working days to fill

 

• St. Mary’s County Provided spreadsheets it uses to track requests, but did not do calculations

It provided spreadsheets for calendar years 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, with detailed records listing: date received, when 10 working days deadline would be, department to check for information, summary of request, when response was sent, requestor, requestor’s company.

Did not answer the questions on average and longest response, however.

Number of requests (had to be counted by hand):
110 in 2018-19
112 in 2019-20
134 in 2020-21

 

• Worcester CountyProvided some information

Number of requests:
26 in 2018-19
30 in 2019-20
57 in 2020-21

Average: “… Worcester County strives to respond within 10 days .…”

Longest: A November 2020 request about private wells was “extremely broad” and took more than 40 days. The county’s Department of Environmental Programs worked with the requestor on options.

“These numbers were based on a manual records [search]. We do not compile reports that break down PIA requests into various subcategories.”

 

SCHOOL DISTRICTS

 

• Allegany County Public SchoolsProvided nearly complete information

Number of requests:
10 in 2018-19
20 in 2019-20
8 in 2020-21

Average response: 5 days (not broken down by time period, as requested, however)

Longest response:
30 days in 2018-19
15 days in 2019-20
20 days in 2020-21

Noteworthy: School system received our PIA request at 7:57 p.m. on Feb. 2. It provided information at 1:58 p.m. on Feb. 3 — by far, the fastest complete response.

 

• Calvert County Public Schools — Provided little information; would charge fees to compile more

Number of requests: 77 in 2020-21

To gather the number of requests for the two previous years, the respondent said it would take more than 10 working days to compile and about six hours of labor. Excluding one hour already spent collecting some information, the other five hours would be billed at $50 per hour, or $250 total. After getting a $100 deposit, it would take five days. (The Public Information Act actually requires that there be no charge for the first two hours of labor connected to a request.)

“Our documents for these documents are stored in a paper format thus requiring additional time to retrieve and review.”

Does not track average or longest response.

 

• Harford County Public Schools — Provided no information; would charge fees to compile

For information on one part of the request, it will take 12 hours of labor by an administrative support coordinator in the Office of General Counsel, at an hourly rate of $35.21, for a total of $422.52, and also will take .5 hours by the general counsel, at a rate of $80.36, for a total of $40.18. The overall total is $462.70. Minus two hours of search time (the PIA says there is no charge for the first two hours) at $57.79, the final total is $347.12.

The same amount — an additional $347.12 — would be charged to get information for other parts of the request. The total cost for all parts, as confirmed in a subsequent email, would be $694.24.

MDDC’s request for a fee waiver because the information is in the public interest — which can be granted under the PIA — was denied. To fill this request, the board has no separate staff, forcing other employees to fill in, according to the district.

Its response letter said: “The Board also is charged, by law, with providing educational services to and protection of over 38,000 students, which endeavors are in the public interest. Therefore, the Board should not be required to undertake the actions required to respond to your request without being paid the fee requested.”

 

• Howard County Public Schools — Provided some information

Sent back a spreadsheet with only two columns labeled and filled out — date received of each request and date each request was completed.

Number of requests:
267 in 2018-19
401 in 2019-20
257 in 2020-21

Did not do calculations or answer questions.

 

• Montgomery County Public Schools — Said it will take more than two months to provide information

During written correspondence and phone conversations with MDDC, the district did not understand the request and thought MDDC was asking the district to explain every PIA denial it has made for three years, which was not true. The confusion grew when the district contended that MDDC had expanded its original request (we did not) and would not narrow it. Therefore, the district said, the request will take longer than 30 days “[g]iven the operational challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the constraints on school system resources .…”

A fee estimate was based on four hours for a communications specialist, at a rate of $33.47, for a total of $133.47 [actually, $133.88]. Two additional hours of a communications assistant’s time would be free.

The misunderstanding later was cleared up. The district said it would provide information at no charge — no later than April 6.

 

• Prince George’s County Public Schools — Provided some information

Number of requests:
209 in 2018-19
174 in 2019-20
120 in 2020-21

Does not track average or longest responses

 

STATE AGENCIES

 

• Department of Labor — Provided some information

Initial response said: “First, since the records requested may contain specific records or information that the Department must withhold or redact … the entire file has to be reviewed before the Department can produce responsive records.”

Number of requests:
184 in 2018-19
444 in 2019-20
299 in 2020-21

No records showing average or longest response

 

• Department of Transportation — Provided almost all information

Number of requests (all opened and closed):
1,005 in 2018-19
919 in 2019-20
603 in 2020-21

Average response:
14 days in 2018-19
13 days in 2019-20
15 days in 2020-21

Does not track longest responses.

Worked with each requestor for the best approach. Waived fees of up to $500. More than two-thirds of PIA requests are processed in less than 10 days with no fee or a minimal fee.

 

• Department of the Environment — Provided all information

Number of requests (all opened and closed):
3,267 in 2018-19
3,201 in 2019-20
2,674 in 2020-21

Average response:
16 days in 2018-19
19 days in 2019-20
16 days in 2020-21

Longest response:
598 days in 2018-19 to issue a findings letter
302 days in 2019-20 to issue a findings letter
194 days in 2020-21 to issue a findings letter

 

• Department of Commerce — Provided some information

Number of requests:
16 in 2018-19
22 in 2019-20
14 in 2020-21

Average response: Most were within 10 business days

Longest response: 30 days (in each time period)

 

• Department of Health — Said request will take more than 10 working days to fill, then did not follow up

 

• Department of Housing and Community Development — After asking us to clarify our request, it asked for a two-week extension to provide information by March 19

 

• Department of Natural Resources — Provided some information

Number of requests:
87 in 2018-19
126 in 2019-20
121 in 2020-21

Also provided requests for Natural Resources Police incident reports:
579 in 2019
380 in 2020
63 in 2021

Average response: “For all three time periods most requests were completed within the 30 days.” The response was greater than 30 days three times in 2020 when records were in facilities closed because of COVID-19.

Longest response: “The longest one we had was six months in 2020 because of building closings due to COVID. The records were not digital.”

 

• Department of Planning — Provided all information

Number of requests:
28 in 2018-19
37 in 2019-20
13 in 2020-21

Average response:
13 business days in 2018-19
13 business days in 2019-20
15 business days in 2020-21

Longest response:
42 business days in 2018-19
28 business days in 2019-20
10 business days in 2020-21

“For the one response that was longer than 30 days, we actively worked with the requestor and were given approval for additional research time.”

 

• Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services — Provided no information

In its initial response, the department said this was not an actual PIA request and it would not take any further action unless we amended the request, which we did not do. In a subsequent email, the department said information answering our questions about changes in PIA policy or practice “was provided to you on or about October 27, 2020” — which was incorrect, since we filed our request on the evening of Feb. 2, 2021.

 

• Department of Education — Did not acknowledge request

 

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— Luciana Perez Uribe Guinassi filed the requests with all 31 entities, had follow-up conversations and compiled their responses. Andrew Schotz wrote the summaries.

The Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association project was done to coincide with Sunshine Week, which is March 14 to 20 this year. Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government and public records, was created by the American Society of News Editors, which is now known as the News Leaders Association.

Also read the main story: “Public records survey highlights unevenness of government tracking, responses