Skip to main content

See also:

Politics 101: How to request public documents

Knowledge is Power
Knowledge is Power
Ann Miller

There are statutes on the federal and state levels which allow citizens to gain access to public documents and records.

What are the information acts?

On the federal level, it is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which can be read here. The FOIA rules are spelled out very clearly at this link.

On the state level, the act in Maryland is called the Public Information Act (PIA), which can be read here.

The information acts have exemptions, in which certain documents are excluded from disclosure for security reasons. But overall, any agency document or record may be requested. The acts do not, however, require governmental agencies to conduct research or create records in order to comply with your request. They also do not require agencies to answer written questions that are not requests for documents or records, although they sometimes will at their discretion.

On the local level, jurisdictions may have adopted regulations which set procedures for compliance with the PIA. Baltimore County’s regulation can be read here.

See sample PIA request here.

How to submit a request

It is important to submit your written request, either by hard copy in the mail or emailed, to the head of the department in which the records are likely maintained, as well as to the individual specified by the department as responsible for information act requests.

Generally, government agencies have one month to comply with an information act request. If longer time is needed due to the nature of the request, the agency should send an acknowledgement of the request and indicate a timeframe for responding.

Also important to note is that the agency can charge the requestor for both the time invested in collecting the information and for any copies of the documents. In Maryland, only the first two manhours invested in compiling the documents requested are free of charge. So it is advisable to either keep your requests small, perhaps even submitting several small requests instead of one big one, or specify in the request that you only want them to invest two hours in pulling the documents.

Compliance issues

It is not unheard of for information act requests to go unanswered by an agency. And members of the media, as well as citizens, have been ignored. Non-compliance is subject to court action, but can be a time-consuming and costly matter. See article here by Bryan Sears. Some legislators in Maryland are looking at reforms to the PIA, and a national group is pushing for reforms on the federal level to the FOIA.