By Judith Meyer, managing editor/days
Mar 21, 2010
The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition is 10 years old, celebrating a decade of promoting and protecting the public’s right to know in Maine.
In that time, and through the work and support of the MFOIC, Mainers have gained from strengthened right to know safeguards, including a first-in-the-nation review of all existing exceptions that shield certain records in Maine. The review, conducted by the Judiciary Committee, scrutinizes every statute to determine whether an existing Freedom of Access Act exemption is still valid, or should be eliminated. That scrutiny ensures that exemptions do not become eternal, but are frequently tested against current and demonstrated need.
In the past decade, FOAA has also been strengthened to allow inspection of public records in a reasonable amount of time following a request for access, require all police departments appoint a public information officer who is trained in public access law, and require that any motion made to go into executive session include the specific statute under which the body moves to executive session. This guarantees we have a clear understanding of the topic to be discussed behind closed doors, and the information someone may need to challenge such a session. It also requires elected officials to have a basic understanding of executive-session law.
The MFOIC also supported the change in law to require elected officials to undergo basic public-access training, and helped educate officials through a series of training sessions at the local and county levels.
According to MFOIC President Mal Leary, “We have come a long way since a few of us got together to talk about the need for a group to advocate for open government. But, we have a lot to do. We face challenges with the constantly changing technology that has both helped with public access through Web sites, and caused concerns with negotiations carried on by government officials through text messages between Blackberries. We must stay vigilant to protect the public’s right to know.”
MFOIC retains a permanent seat on the recently-created legislative Right to Know Advisory Committee, and has supported the creation of a public-access ombudsman, an idea that has been presented to the Legislature a number of times, but failed for lack of funding. These ombudsman positions have proved so successful in other states that Maine’s Attorney General’s Office voluntarily serves as an informal ombudsman. This is a terrific resource available to the public, and has helped resolve disagreements without the need for lawsuits.
During the last legislative session, MFOIC supported a bill sponsored by Sen. David Hastings (R-Fryeburg) to allow Mainers to recover attorney’s fees in FOAA cases where they have proved they were unlawfully denied access to public records or meetings.
Hastings was recently awarded MFOIC’s third Maine Sunshine Award for this effort.
Members of the MFOIC pledge to continue working toward a requirement that all government bodies are required to keep minutes of public meetings, and will challenge any move to create new confidentiality exceptions in law, believing that the public’s business must be conducted in open to ensure accountability and preserve the public trust.
Formed in 2000, MFOIC is a nonprofit broad-based affiliation of media, public interest, academic, government and private organizations that share an interest in protecting access to public information.
In 2002, the Coalition conducted the first statewide public records audit in Maine, uncovering significant violations in town offices, school departments and police departments where volunteers asked to inspect public documents. The results of that audit were so dismal, the Legislature formed a committee to review FOAA compliance in Maine. That committee eventually became the Right to Know Advisory Committee.
That audit also provided the momentum to require FOAA training for police.
MFOIC followed its 2002 audit with another in 2006, and recognized great improvement throughout local government, but with some obvious need for more training. This data encouraged the Legislature to require FOAA training for all elected officials.
In 2007, MFOIC surveyed 126 quasi-government agencies, including the Maine Turnpike Authority, Baxter State Park Authority and the Maine Humanities Council, to see if they had adopted ethics policies, as recommended by Gov. John Baldacci. Of the agencies surveyed, only 45 percent had these policies, but since the MFOIC survey nearly all of the agencies have complied with the governor’s request.
The need to formalize ethics policies came to light over the public outrage when Maine Turnpike Authority managers and three of their chief engineering consultants accepted the gift of a $1,342 dinner paid by a New Jersey highway consultant in 2006.
MFOIC has routinely asked candidates for public office to sign a pledge to support government transparency; the last time was in 2008 when fewer than half of the candidates agreed to sign such a pledge.
Most recently, the Coalition has produced a DVD titled “Accessing Government Information in Maine,” a short tutorial to help guide the public through Maine’s FOAA and help Mainers understand how to get access to public records and attend public meetings. The DVD, produced through a grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition and narrated by former Gov. Angus King, have been distributed to every public library in the state, including high school libraries.
Through a series of skits, scripted from real-life situations, the DVD explains how the law applies to public records and meetings in town offices, schools and police departments, including suggestions about how to handle situations when someone believes they have been denied access to a public record or meeting, and also pointing out some situations where records are confidential by law.
The text of the pledge for transparency, along with the DVD, reports of the public records audits and ethics policy survey are available on the MFOIC Web site, mfoic.org.
Judith Meyer, a managing editor at the Sun Journal, is vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and serves on the Right to Know Advisory Committee.