It took Bangor about five months to provide unredacted public records requested by the Bangor Daily News, which it is required to do under Maine law.
In May, the BDN filed a public records request with the city of Bangor for files related to the city’s work with a team from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to close an encampment off of Valley Avenue where, at times, up to 30 people who were homeless lived.
The BDN sought the records — which included meeting minutes, emails and any reports — to learn more about how the process went. But it took until mid-September for the city to provide the records free of redactions.
The BDN wasn’t alone in requesting the records. Two other people made similar requests in an attempt to learn more about a process they said they felt was hidden from public view.
Initially, the city provided the records with redactions of the names of landlords, addresses of buildings and other details. While the BDN did not request the names or personally identifying information of people who may have been homeless, City Manager Debbie Laurie said the city redacted information that it thought might allow the BDN to figure out who the city assisted.
In some cases, an entity can redact information from public records, such as if it pertains to the use of a municipality’s general assistance funds. But in this case the city applied its redactions too broadly, effectively eliminating any way for the BDN to understand who the city spoke to in attempts to house people living in the Valley Avenue encampment.
The BDN pushed back — through emails, phone calls and an attorney — to unredact the information, which the city eventually did. But for the two other requestors — Brian Pitman, who at the time was an Orono resident concerned about the homelessness crisis in Bangor, and Doug Dunbar, a community organizer — the records were never unredacted.
Pitman became interested in requesting records related to the city’s work with the HUD team after reading an article in the BDN in April about the encampment’s closure, he said. At the time, he questioned if the city really did manage to house anyone, Pittman said.
Dunbar felt a similar pull to see if the city held up its end of the bargain, he said.
“First of all, I am a big believer in government transparency and access to public records,” Dunbar said. “I’m among many people, including individuals who work for the city and our elected officials, who have been increasingly concerned about our unsheltered community.”
Through his organization, Penobscot County Cares, Dunbar has been pushing Bangor to help solve the homelessness crisis, he said. For Dunbar, he felt the city seemed to be moving too slowly when it came to helping the homeless, so he wanted to see how, after months of slow movement, the city housed so many people so quickly, he said.
But, the redactions to the records made it difficult to truly understand what happened behind the scenes, he said.
“There are quite a few redactions. And so it’s challenging to connect some of the dots,” he said.
Sigmund Schutz, an attorney with Preti Flaherty and an expert in Maine public access law, represented the BDN as it sought to get the records unredacted. In a July letter to the city, Schutz argued that the city’s redactions were too broad, violating the narrow nature of Maine’s public records law.
“The bottom line is that when taxpayer funds may be used to pay for housing, the public has a right to know exactly what it is that the public is or may be buying,” he said. “And more generally, there is a public interest in access to information about the City’s efforts regarding the Valley Avenue homeless encampment, an issue of substantial concern to the Community.”
Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. He may be reached at email@example.com.