Project Baltimore’s recent court victory over Baltimore City Public Schools has raised serious questions concerning the strength of Maryland’s Public Information Act.
The ruling came down this month. A Baltimore City Circuit Judge found City Schools “willfully and knowingly” violated the law when it refused to hand over the results of an internal grade changing investigation.
“It’s a victory for teachers, parents, taxpayers, but most of all, students. I hope that this is the first step towards some accountability over there on North Avenue,” says Scott Marder, of Thomas & Libowitz, the attorney who represented Fox45 in this lawsuit.
As part of Judge Jeannie Hong’s ruling, she ordered North Avenue must release all the document Fox45 requested and pay more than $122,000 to cover Fox45’s legal expenses. Project Baltimore was willing and able to pursue this lawsuit on behalf of the public, but what about families who can’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an attorney?
“Well, the unfortunate thing is that there are really only two avenues,” says Damon Effingham from Common Cause, a non-partisan think tank that’s working to strengthen Maryland’s public information act.
The first avenue is to contact the state’s public records ombudsman, whose job is to assist in the process. But that position has no authority to order the release of information. If that avenue fails, the only other thing parents can do in Maryland is file a lawsuit.
“That’s very expensive and time consuming and for a typical Maryland parent, they don’t have the time or the knowledge or the finances to be able to do that and to get this disclosure,” says Effingham.
In 2014, Common Cause worked to improve Maryland’s public records law. Some changes were made, but Effingham says it’s not enough. He argues the law needs more teeth. The ombudsman needs more power. And there needs to be more uniformity.
“What we want is to not give these agencies any wiggle room to say we’re interpreting it in our own way, which is what is really happening across the board right now,” he says.
For example, last year Project Baltimore requested all “travel expenses” from Howard County Public Schools. A few weeks later, we received them. But when we sent that same request to Baltimore County Public Schools, we didn’t get the documents. Instead, we got a bill saying it would cost $34,000. It was the same request sent to different school systems and we received different results.
“Transparency is the most foundational piece of holding government accountable,” Effingham says. “If you’re not able to see the machinations of government that’s supposed to be working for you, they can get away with anything.”