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Transparency is not a Republican or Democratic value. It must be a fundamental part of government, regardless of which party is in charge at a given moment. Perhaps that’s why lawmakers from both parties recognized that Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) needed to be strengthened.
This past week, March 12-18, was Sunshine Week, a national initiative by the American Society of News Editors dedicated to the importance of open government. A recently proposed bill in Augusta reflects this spirit of open government by attempting to ensure that public records requests are met within reasonable time frames, among other steps.
Rep. David Boyer, a Republican from Poland, did introduced legal regulation it would build on existing law and hopefully speed up the public records request process. The FOAA currently requires the relevant public agency responding to a public records request to provide a good-faith estimate of how long and how much it will cost to fulfill the request “within a reasonable time of receipt of the request.” But “reasonable time” is not defined.
By specifying that these assessments must be submitted no later than 30 days after the initial request is received, Boyer’s bill will hopefully help address the unfortunate way in which records requests can be drawn out over long periods of time. After all, timeliness is an important part of transparency.
Boyer’s proposal would also allow public access officers to prioritize requests from Mainers and reporters and would allow more records to be released under the Intelligence and Investigative Data Act.
The bill features an ideologically diverse mix of co-sponsors, including Democratic-Republican. Laura Supica of Bangor and Republican Senator. Eric Brakey of Auburn. That should be the starting point for much-needed action in Augusta to make sure Maine’s freedom of access law works as it should.
This existing law should provide “residents of this state with a broad right of access to public records while protecting legitimate state interests and the right to privacy of individual citizens.” That’s right government website explains it. In our experience, however, alleged government interests and privacy concerns are too often used as excuses to restrict access to legitimately public documents. This has to change.
For example, the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald had to win a lawsuit against the Maine State Police last year to access certain unredacted final officer disciplinary records. It should not take legal action to compel government agencies to produce public records.
“The decision underscores the need for law enforcement agencies in Maine to open their records to the public, including specifically the records of officers who have been disciplined but allowed to continue on the job or who have been relieved of duty and paid severance dollars at the same time.” taxpayers,” said BDN attorney Berney Kubetz at this time last year.
Recently, BDN columnist Matthew Gagnon called Maine’s freedom of access law “hopelessly broken” because of the time, cost and power structure of public records requests — since the target of the records request is often the one tasked with compiling the response.
“The only way to fix this mess is to radically reform the system,” Gagnon wrote in February.
As First Amendment attorney Sigmund Schutz has explained to BDN in the past, a series of exceptions has weakened Maine’s freedom of access law.
“Now, right-to-know law is a kind of Swiss cheese, with many dozens of individual exceptions that protect certain discrete types of records or discrete topics of meetings from the public’s right to know,” Schutz said in 2021.
Another sunny week has come and gone, and just like last year, Maine lawmakers still have work to do to strengthen Maine’s freedom of access law. They already have ideas and a bipartisan agreement to build on.
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It’s time to strengthen Maine’s freedom of access law
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