Maryland’s patchwork of neighborhoods, towns and municipalities create a diverse and wonderful landscape. But what is our biggest strength can also be our greatest challenge. With so many different local governments in play — 181 in all — each with its own set of customs and policies, citizens can easily become confused when trying to access information.
In honor of Sunshine Week, March 12 through 18, the MDDC Press Association convened a collaborative project that involved many of its members, including The Enterprise. Editorial staff in Southern Maryland audited local government websites and examined the type of information readily available. In a nutshell, the diversity of Maryland that we celebrate also translates into an uneven quality of accessible government information.
Often, the local newspaper (both in print and online) serves as a unifying force, distilling and disseminating information to the public. We celebrate this tradition and seek to bring light to the topics and government actions that affect our communities with objective reporting. Maryland’s citizens have the right to know how government transacts business on their behalf. Sunshine Week, celebrated annually this week, focuses attention on shining the bright light of transparency into those dark corners of government.
The timing of Sunshine Week, which falls in the midst of the 90-day General Assembly session, is well placed to highlight the opportunity for the state to make continued improvements. Founded in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week promotes open government and public access to information.
At the state level, Maryland legislators are considering HB 880/SB 450, which would strengthen open meetings laws by requiring at least one member of a public body take Open Meetings Act training and provide additional reporting requirements to highlight violations of the act by public bodies. Legislators are also considering a proposal by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to live-stream House and Senate floor sessions as well as consistent funding for Maryland Public Television.
These incremental changes would help improve the culture of government openness, but there’s still a long way to go. Enforcement mechanisms for Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act violations are woefully inadequate and many public bodies seek to keep their actions in the shadows.
In St. Mary’s, we are fortunate to have one of the most public-friendly open meetings laws in the nation.
Citizens also want access to information about how government is spending their money. Too often during this legislative session, we have seen a push to eliminate notices of bids and procurement from their independent local newspaper and news website in favor of posting on a government-owned website alone. As the MDDC study shows, publication and prominence is highly unreliable if government is the only source.
In the current environment of “fake news,” partisan wrangling and sweeping change, Marylanders should know their local newspapers remain committed to the disinfecting power of sunlight and the bracing vigor of objective reporting.