- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Public outcry has forced Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening to revise a proposal that would have denied the public access to records simply because custodians said their release would threaten public security.

His proposal to create broad latitude for squelching public access fueled by post-September 11 concerns that terrorists could obtain information to carry out attacks already had provoked outrage from civil liberties and press groups, as well as businesses and private investigators.

Mr. Glendening, a Democrat, said last month he would work to balance those concerns with public safety.

"The membership of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington was extremely alarmed by the original bill because of the need to check backgrounds of tenants and employees who would have access to buildings," said Lesa Hoover, a lobbyist for the group, which supports the new measure.

The governor's revised proposal, not released until yesterday's hearing before a Senate committee, would allow state and local government employees to deny inspection of records or parts of records to the extent that the information could facilitate planning an attack or put individuals or public property at risk.

They also could refuse to release emergency response plans for the tactics, procedures or vulnerabilities they might reveal.

Blueprints and operational manuals for public facilities including arenas and water and sewer systems would also be off-limits, because they could disclose security details such as surveillance and staffing.

Information about stores of medical supplies and laboratories designated for use in emergencies also would be kept under wraps.

The scaled-down proposal won support from groups that already had filed testimony protesting Mr. Glendening's original proposal, which his staff said was based on recommendations of an anti-terrorism task force led by Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. David Mitchell.

But Sen. Norman Stone, Baltimore County Democrat, was still unsatisfied. "Do you think it's such a burden to have a custodian of a record state why it's a threat to public safety?" Mr. Stone said.

Access to such records, once denied, could be overturned by a judge. But public information advocates are concerned that new measures could have a further chilling effect on access.

Press groups want to require that the measure be reviewed in five years to see if it is needed.

"Leaving it up to the discretion of the custodian isn't always the best answer," said Jim Lee, managing editor of the Carroll County Times.

Although current state law requires state and local government employees who keep records to release them unless the information is specifically exempted by law, history shows it is seldom that easy.

An audit of requests for public records conducted by the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association showed that custodians of those records denied access about 50 percent of the time, Mr. Lee said.

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