“Sunshine Week” During COVID-19

Steps made toward government transparency – more needs to be done

In Maryland, “Sunshine Week 2021” saw some progress toward greater transparency in government activities — but much work remains to be done.

Last week, Maryland’s House of Delegates unanimously approved the Equitable Access to Records Act, HB 183, sponsored by Delegate Brooke Lierman. The bill provides greater authority to the Maryland Public Information Act Compliance Board, to review and decide PIA disputes that are not resolved through mediation with the Ombudsman. It strengthens the 2015 legislation that created the Compliance Board and the Ombudsman position, which have been critical to providing Marylanders with greater access to public records.   

  • Read testimony of Common Cause Maryland in support of the Senate companion bill here.
  • Read “More Enforcement Powers Needed in Maryland’s Public Information Act to Make Government More Transparent,” an op-ed by Public Access Ombudsman Lisa Kershner and John West, the chair of the Public Information Act Compliance Board, in The Maryland Reporter here.
  • Read more about the 2015 legislation, championed by Common Cause Maryland and the Maryland, Delaware, DC Press Association, here.

The Montgomery County Council is now considering a bill that would require the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation to livestream its meetings. The bill, sponsored by Montgomery County Councilman Evan Glass, would be a substantial step toward transparency for an organization that is 96% funded by taxpayers.

  • Common Cause Maryland recommends the bill be strengthened by requiring: that livestreams be recorded and archived for at least a year; that all meeting materials — not just the agenda — be publicly posted and easily available to the public at least 24 hours before the meeting; and that meeting materials and meeting notes be archived.  
  • A public hearing on the bill will be held March 23rd at 1:30pm.

However, Common Cause Maryland remains concerned about Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich’s Executive Order allowing indefinite postponement of public records requests until after the COVID-19 public health emergency is lifted.

  • Executive Elrich issued the Order almost six months ago, and there is still no end date in sight. Even during a pandemic — perhaps especially during a pandemic — people’s trust in government depends on transparency. 
  • The Ombudsman recommends working to fulfill records requests as quickly as possible, subject to operational restrictions. 
  • Common Cause Maryland urges Executive Elrich to revise his Executive Order to be in line with the Ombudsman’s recommendations, rather than a blanket waiver of response deadlines until 30 days after the emergency is lifted.

As we said a year ago, “Maryland’s confidence in our government is more important during a time of crisis than ever. Public officials must do everything in their power to maximize the ability of the public to continue observing and participating in government proceedings.” Read our March 2020 recommendations for maintaining transparency during COVID-19 here.

“Sunshine Week” is the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and open government. It was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now  News Leaders Association). This year’s “Sunshine Week” was March 14-20. Read more here.