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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 particular moment. Perhaps that is why lawmakers of both parties have recognized that the Maine Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) needs to be strengthened.
This past week, March 12-18, was Sunshine Week, a national initiative started 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 public records requests are fulfilled in reasonable periods of time, among other steps.
Rep. David Boyer, a Republican from Poland, has introduced legislation that would build on current 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 comply with the request “within a reasonable time of receiving the request.” But “reasonable time” is not defined.
By specifying that these estimates must be provided no later than 30 days after the receipt of the initial request, Boyer’s bill would hopefully help address the unfortunate way that records requests can be dragged out over long periods of time. Timeliness is an important part of transparency, after all.
Boyer’s proposal would also allow public access officers to prioritize requests from Mainers and journalists, and allow for more records to be released under the Intelligence and Investigative Record Information Act.
The bill features an ideologically diverse mix of co-sponsors, including Democratic Rep. Laura Supica of Bangor and Republican Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn. It should be a starting point for much needed action in Augusta to make sure that Maine’s freedom of access law is working as it should.
This existing law is supposed to grant “the people of this state a broad right of access to public records while protecting legitimate governmental interests and the privacy rights of individual citizens.” That is how the state website explains it. In our experience, however, supposed government interests and privacy concerns are too often used as excuses to limit access to legitimately public records. This must change.
For example, the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald had to win a court case against the Maine State Police last year in order to access certain unredacted final officer disciplinary records. It should not take legal action to compel state agencies to provide public records.
“The decision underscores the need for Maine law enforcement agencies to open their records to public scrutiny, including especially the records of police officers who have been disciplined but allowed to continue in their jobs or who are relieved of their duties and simultaneously paid severance packages funded by taxpayer dollars,” BDN lawyer Berney Kubetz said at the time last year.
More recently, BDN columnist Matthew Gagnon called Maine’s freedom of access law “hopelessly broken” due to the time, cost and power structure of fulfilling public records requests — as the target of a 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 lawyer Sigmund Schutz has explained to the BDN in the past, a litany of exceptions has weakened Maine’s freedom of access law.
“Now, the right-to-know law is sort of Swiss Cheese, with many dozens of individual exceptions protecting certain discrete types of records, or discrete meeting subjects, from the public’s right to know,” Schutz said in 2021.
Another Sunshine Week has come and gone, and just like years past, Maine lawmakers still have work to do in order to shore up Maine’s freedom of access law. They already have ideas, and bipartisan agreement, on which to build.