“Is The Banner going to hire a First Amendment lawyer?”

That was one of the first questions veteran local reporters Justin Fenton and Tim Prudente asked as they considered whether to accept a job here.

That’s because many public agencies and court systems across Maryland had become lax — delaying responses to public records requests or ignoring them altogether, charging exorbitant fees for records, overaggressively redacting documents and denying access to courtroom hearings or public meetings. With budget-crunched newsrooms less willing to spend money to challenge decisions, government bodies were pushing the limits of what they could get away with.

Fast forward about two years, and The Baltimore Banner has made fighting for public access one of our core tenets. Since it’s Sunshine Week, a time to emphasize the need for open records and government transparency, we thought we’d highlight some local winners and losers.

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To the winners, we appreciate your commitment to making it easier for the public to obtain information. And to those who obstruct, delay or flat-out fail to provide information and access, do better. As taxpayers and local residents, we don’t just deserve better treatment, we’re owed it under the law.


Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner: The Banner had to sue the state agency in December 2022 after it refused to produce key aspects of autopsy reports, such as toxicology reports and demographic information. A judge ordered the agency on Feb. 1 to turn over the records within 15 days, which has not yet happened because OCME is seeking to revise the ruling.

Maryland Department of Health: If we were giving out special achievements, the Department of Health would be the biggest loser. Several reporters have encountered challenges obtaining basic answers and their stance with journalists feels unnecessarily combative and unhelpful. The Banner has at least one outstanding public records request that has stretched more than a year. Calls are frequently not returned in a timely manner and experts and officials are rarely made available for interviews.

Baltimore Circuit Court: Unlike every other court jurisdiction in Maryland, Baltimore is not yet on Maryland Electronic Courts, or MDEC — the system is scheduled to be implemented later this year. There are only paper files. It is all but impossible to access court documents for cases within two weeks of their scheduled court date. Reviewing files is a torturous saga that feels like it’s designed to deter access. The files can only be reviewed, one at a time, under the supervision of a courthouse employee while sitting at a table, where there is a sign that states that you can only look at court records for 45 minutes every day. You cannot take photos of court documents on your phone. The clerk’s office only accepts cash, and copies cost 50 cents per page. Meanwhile, the civil and family divisions only take exact change.

Maryland Stadium Authority and Maryland Thoroughbred Racetrack Operating Authority: Neither authority held a public meeting or gave advance notice of consequential policy votes involving public dollars. The stadium authority conducted a vote-by-phone for the Orioles lease memorandum of understanding. The racetrack authority voted by email on their final report outlining the future of the Pimlico Race Course and thoroughbred racing. In an age where meetings can be held and streamed online — even on the shortest notice — it’s unacceptable for any government body to take votes out of sight from the public.

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Baltimore City Office of the Comptroller: The comptroller’s office launched a revamp of the city spending board database in 2022, which allows the public to search every Board of Estimates transaction since January 2021, from lawsuit settlements to real estate acquisitions. Previously, members of the public had to comb through agendas for each meeting to locate a transaction. The comptroller’s office communications staff are also easy to reach and respond quickly with information — more so than most city agencies.

Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City: The board makes records, specifically liquor license applications, available in a consistent and timely manner while also protecting the privacy of businesses. Detailed hearing schedules are posted online and communicated to the public via email.

Baltimore County: After a request from The Banner, County Executive Johnny Olszewski encouraged his staff to create an online dashboard that allows residents to look up restaurants that have been closed by the county health department. The database, which launched last summer and is updated daily, includes dates of closures and the reasons why a restaurant has been shut down. We’re fans of this public service: Who doesn’t want to know that their favorite restaurant has a rat problem?

Maryland State Department of Education: The Department of Education has been one of the most responsive and proactive state agencies in responding to data requests. The agency is detail-oriented, taking the time to understand The Banner’s requests and story ideas our reporters are pursuing. The Department of Education has also been willing to provide data with a level of granularity that allows us to delve into tough issues, such as Black teacher retention.

Kimi Yoshino is the editor in chief of The Baltimore Banner.

Kimi Yoshino is the editor in chief of The Baltimore Banner, overseeing all newsroom operations, policy and content. She is a former managing editor at the Los Angeles Times, where she worked for 21 years. In 2011, she helped guide an investigation into corruption that was awarded the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service.

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