Friday, March 07, 2008

Public Access to Public Information

Recently, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot released the names of Maryland State employees earning more than $100,000. This caused quite a stir in Annapolis because public information had actually reached the public.

The Maryland Public Information Act provides that the salary of a State employee is public information. Releasing the information to anyone who asks or posting it on the Comptroller’s website is perfectly legal. Why then is a Maryland State Senator launching an investigation into the release? Why does the Senator want to waste State resources investigating the release of information that by law must be made available to the public? Is the Senator afraid that Maryland taxpayers might question some of the salaries? Could it be that our public officials are concerned that taxpayers may learn too much about how our money is being spent and we might wonder whether it is the best use of our money?

The Senator should instead investigate why, despite all the high-priced talent at the Comptroller’s Office, the Comptroller’s web site is so lacking in current information on the State’s finances but full of information about the Comptroller’s public appearances.

I applaud the Comptroller’s devotion to assuring that the public has public information but it would have been far more taxpayer-friendly to post the information on his website than to release it only to the press. Taxpayers should hope that release of the salaries is the Comptroller’s first step in keeping them informed about how their money is spent. Taxpayers should also hope that, in the future, the Comptroller will provide the information directly to them through his website rather than piecemeal through the press.

The Comptroller’s website is very helpful in instructing taxpayers about paying taxes but relatively devoid of information about where all the money that is collected goes. The Comptroller is responsible for paying almost all of the State’s bills and maintains records of the payments. He has the latest technology and talented employees. Using these resources that State taxpayers provide to him, the Comptroller could provide taxpayers with timely comprehensive information about how their money is spent.

Instead of waiting for requests for public information, the Comptroller could make the database of State payments accessible and searchable by ordinary citizens through his website. This would be a giant leap forward for public access to public information. It would also save many State employees time and effort in responding to multiple individual Public Information Act requests for the same information and would assure that the information would be available to the taxpayers without additional charge.

It should take little or no effort for the Comptroller to make information that is by law public information more easily accessible to Maryland citizens.