It is your government, and you have a right to know how it is operating and how it is spending your tax dollars. Not everyone in government, however, agrees.
In 2001, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition was founded by groups and individuals as diverse as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Maine Press Association, the Maine Broadcasters Association and the Society of Professional Journalists.
We set up our first website and started our educational outreach efforts and decided we needed to prove what we already knew: There were problems with the existing laws.
Lawmakers were not convinced there was a problem, so we looked to the public records audits in other states and worked with University of Maine faculty to develop an academically sound audit methodology.
We used a grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition along with contributions from member organization to conduct the first comprehensive statewide audit, with volunteers from university campuses, the League of Women Voters and news media organizations.
It had an impact. Embarrassed that some of the public documents sought by the audit were withheld by two-thirds of the municipalities audited, legislative leaders sought to address the problem.
There were hearings in 2003, and lawmakers overwhelmingly passed legislation requiring police agencies have a written policy for inspection of records. More important was a unanimous vote of the Legislature to establish a commission to study public access.
Several Freedom of Information Coalition members served on the panel with a broad group of stakeholders. The panel found more than 600 exceptions to the public records law, scattered through out Maine laws, a surprise to most lawmakers and the public.
In 2005, using the recommendations of the study group, lawmakers created the Right to Know Advisory Committee and adopted what we believe is the most comprehensive review process in the nation.
Maine now has a process in place that requires any legislation proposing an exception to the law be reviewed separately by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee using a set of public interest standards. The committee has also embarked on a decadelong process of reviewing existing exceptions and applying the same public interest standards. Dozens of exceptions have been repealed or modified.
In 2006, a second public records audit was conducted to see what progress had been made. There were mixed results: Some agencies and municipalities showed improvement, while others did not. The results were useful in getting a new provision of state law adopted that requires a government body to specifically cite the law they are using when going into an executive session.
Instead of filing lawsuits, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition has stressed education and training to solve the state’s access problems. We were successful in getting legislation adopted that mandates Freedom of Access Act training for all elected officials, including the Legislature and the governor. That law went into effect in 2008, and thousands of elected officials have completed training.
We also decided that those who are doing an exemplary job of advocating for open government deserve recognition, and we created an annual Sunshine in Government Award. The first award was given to the co-leaders of the Legislature’s first Freedom of Access study group, then-Sen. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston and then-Rep. Ted Kofman of Bar Harbor.
In 2009, the Maine coalition received a grant from national coalition and, with local matching efforts, produced an educational DVD that was distributed to libraries across the state. The DVD has several vignettes dramatizing Mainers seeking public records, with former Gov. Angus King explaining the law behind each story. We also made a half-hour public access TV program to further the the coalition’s educational goals.
We continue to advocate for the establishment of a ombudsman’s office as part of the Attorney General’s Office to help Mainers who have difficulty getting access to public records.
In our decade celebration, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition is reaching out through forums to discuss Freedom of Access in each of the 16 counties.
While we feel we have accomplished a lot in the last decade, more needs to be done to make all Mainers aware of the public access laws and their importance to making government operate in the sunshine.
Mal Leary is a longtime open government advocate. He is president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and treasurer of the national coalition. He owns Capitol News Service and uses the public records laws every day.