- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

Advocates for open public records say area government officials are like those elsewhere in the country — increasingly citing security concerns in rejecting access to records after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Public officials are reacting with an abundance of caution,” said Alice Neff Lucan, staff attorney for the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association.

She cited the recent rejection of a Maryland newspaper’s request for a copy of a report on a county evacuation plan.

“Instead of making difficult decisions about what to release and what to hold back, they kept back everything,” she said.

In the District, former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly received a no-bid, $236,000 consulting deal more than three years ago to create a bioterrorism-preparedness report for the city’s health department, but when The Washington Times tried to obtain a copy through the Freedom of Information Act, city officials rejected the request, saying disclosure of the document could compromise public safety.

The decision whether to grant access to a document is often subjective, depending on the mindset of the official charged with deciding a particular request, said Jim Lee, editor of the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Md.

“The law is sufficiently vague to allow a lot of leeway,” said Mr. Lee, a member of the press association’s Freedom of Information Act subcommittee.

Forrest Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, agreed.

“There are some who will recognize the need for public access,” he said, “but if somebody wants to be a security czar, you can get away with that.”

Virginia has enacted more than 30 changes to its Freedom of Information Act since the terrorist attacks, with most of them limiting access to public information.

Changes related to concerns about homeland security were approved in 2002 and 2003. After negotiations between homeland security officials and open-government advocates, the freedom-of-information law was amended to keep confidential “critical infrastructure” records submitted to government by utilities and businesses. Supporters said the exemptions were needed to protect dams and nuclear plants, but opponents said the bill allowed too many exclusions.

In other legislation related to security concerns, various measures were enacted to try to get Social Security numbers removed from public documents.

However, Mr. Landon credited Virginia for having an ombudsman program overseen by the legislature that helps citizens and government officials get advice about whether particular records are public. He said state officials handle about 1,200 such inquiries a year.

Ginger Stanley, executive director of the Virginia Press Association, said state officials “have a tremendous amount of flexibility to keep information secret.” When officials seek to tighten access to public records, they frequently cite security concerns, she said.

“They always use that term — terrorism — because that scares legislators and makes them pass broader laws than we’d like to see,” Mrs. Stanley said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports

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