Saturday, December 31, 2016

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The long-awaited report from Lisa Kershner, the Maryland public access ombudsman, was released yesterday.  It confirms an entrenched pattern of non-compliance from HCPSS Central Office in response to Public Information Act requests. While the majority of requests were handled properly, it is clear from the report that, in certain areas, the school system response was wholly inadequate.

Basically, if the subject of the request was something that the school system didn't want to tell, their response was, "Don't ask." Notable examples include requests focused on the now-infamous 'disappearing' Special Education report, information pertaining to mold at Glenwood Middle School, and emails and school records requested by the mother of the late Grace McComas.

The ombudsman notes the importance of adhering to the law in all requests with the same responsiveness and even-handedness. Clearly that was not happening here. I can say "clearly" with a good deal of confidence because this report is thorough. See for yourself.

The report is eighty pages long and explains purpose, methodology, and gives an organized accounting of data gathered. It contains dates, references to documents, and timelines. If you had any doubts as to why it was necessary for the State Legislature to authorize this investigation, reading this report will dispel them in a hurry.

Now what?

Well, I imagine the Board of Education will be examining this report in great detail. They bear the responsibility for addressing the findings of the report and making the changes necessary to respond to any damage done by the school system. In addition, citizens may respond to the issues raised in the report by contacting their Maryland State representatives. If you want to do that, do it soon. The legislative session in Annapolis begins January 11th. One suggestion?  A bill to create a PIA enforcement group like the ones at the federal level for FOIA compliance.

The big takeaway from this report is that failure to comply with MPIA law undermines public trust. Period.

"When responses to PIA requests are ignored, or otherwise improperly handled, public trust and confidence in government necessarily is diminished," the report concludes.

Something about those words sounded familiar to me. Oh, yes--

Once you lose the moral high ground in your community, you lose the authority to make significant decisions that require compliance. You lose the authority to command large sums of money from the County without oversight in your operations. You lose your status as the place parents want to send their children. ("Mold and Truthiness", July 24, 2015, Village Green/Town² )

The ombudsman did a huge amount of work on this project. So did the citizens and legislators who made it all possible by crafting legislation and working for its passage. This is a victory for those who believe that responsiveness, transparency, and accountability are essential to public service. I sincerely hope that the days of the school system turning its back on members of the community is over.

They should never have begun in the first place.

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