By Adam Pagnucco.
In a little-noticed executive order, County Executive Marc Elrich has indefinitely prolonged the time taken by the county government to respond to Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests. Under the order, MPIA requestors may have to wait until after the pandemic emergency is over before the county will answer their requests.
The MPIA is a state law that is a counterpart to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Under the MPIA, individuals may request records in the custody of state and local governments subject to a number of exceptions. The time taken by governments to respond to requests is described by the state’s MPIA manual:
Under GP § 4-203(b)(1), if a custodian determines that a record is responsive to a request and open to inspection, the custodian must produce the record “immediately” after receipt of the written request. An additional reasonable period “not to exceed 30 days” is available only where the additional period of time is required to retrieve the records and assess their status under the PIA. A custodian should not, however, wait the full 30 days to allow or deny access to a record if that amount of time is not needed to respond.
That may not be the case anymore in Montgomery County for the foreseeable future.
On October 5, County Executive Marc Elrich issued Executive Order 119-20 on the subject of “Extension of MPIA Response Deadlines.” The order’s text states:
Section 1. Extension of Deadlines
The deadlines imposed under §§4-202, 4-203, and 4-358 of the Act are hereby suspended for any request for inspection or copies of records pending before or filed with any agency or unit of the Montgomery County Government on or after the date of this Order (regardless of whether that deadline has already passed). The deadlines contained in the above-referenced sections of the Act are extended until the 30th day after the Governor has terminated the state of emergency and rescinded the proclamation of the catastrophic health emergency.
Section 2. Directive to Departments.
Each custodian of records should provide a copy of this Order to a person requesting a record under the Act, and (if practical) a non-binding estimate as to when the custodian will respond to the request.
Section 5. Effective Date.
This Order shall take full force and effect immediately.
No one knows when the state of emergency will end. This executive order could conceivably postpone MPIA responses by a year or more. This is an unprecedented act by Montgomery County Government. Additionally, the reference to “any agency or unit” of the county government raises the question of whether it applies to MCPS, Park and Planning, Montgomery College and other affiliated entities.
County governments normally do not have the option of overturning state law, but Elrich cites an executive order by Governor Larry Hogan as his source of authority. That executive order says in part:
The head of each unit of State or local government may, upon a finding that the suspension will not endanger the public health, welfare, or safety, and after notification to the Governor, suspend the effect of any legal or procedural deadline, due date, time of default, time expiration, period of time, or other time of an act or event described within any State or local statute, rule, or regulation that it administers. The unit head shall provide reasonable public notice of any such suspension.
Elrich issued his executive order on October 5, when it took “full force and effect immediately.” Now here is an odd thing. According to the county’s MPIA response database, the county has answered 36 MPIA requests since October 5 as of this writing. This raises a number of questions. Do some county departments know of the executive order but not others? Or is there an interpretation of Elrich’s executive order that permits departments to decide whether to answer a request immediately or postpone it? Any disparate treatment of MPIA requests depending on their nature would be deeply troubling.
This screenshot of the county’s MPIA response database shows that it has continued to answer at least some requests since October 5.
Folks, I have been writing about state and county politics since 2006. I have used the MPIA countless times to obtain information of public interest, including information that would normally not be released by the authorities. The MPIA is among the most important tools available to residents to hold their government accountable. Indefinitely postponing answers to MPIA requests accomplishes nothing other than to allow county officials to behave as they will in the dead of night.
I respectfully ask the county council to summon representatives of the executive branch to justify this executive order in a public session.