State-issued smartphones that can send virtually untraceable messages are a threat to government transparency and accountability.
Then again, so are officials who violate the law by ordering records destroyed. And police who withhold vital information pertaining to a case that is clearly in the public interest. And lawmakers who use legal loopholes to negotiate legislation out of public view.
Each of these cases has occurred in Maine in the last year, and they are just a few of the instances where government power and privacy have trumped the public’s right to know. At a time when technology should be making government more open, a culture of secrecy still too often prevails.
As we mark Sunshine Week, dedicated to open government, it is necessary to recognize what creates that culture of secrecy, and what it will take to erase it. Maine has solid right-to-know laws, but the success of those laws depends on the people and organizations that defend them.
As a start, Gov. Paul LePage can help by prohibiting the use of the smartphones to send text messages.
Unlike emails, the texts are not saved on the state servers. They don’t appear to be stored anywhere, really, so discussions held over text message are essentially secret, and out of the reach of Freedom of Access requests.
After the system became public last week, a LePage spokeswoman said it is rarely used, and that the administration does not condone its misuse.
The public, however, has no way of knowing, and very recent history shows government is often keen on keeping public information private.
Last week, a former state employee said her supervisors told her to use text messaging to avoid creating a public record, a charge the supervisors denied.
To make matters worse, the testimony came in front of the Government Oversight Committee, which is investigating claims that officials from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention ordered the destruction of documents related to $4.7 million in public health grants. According to some employees, the agency was trying to keep the documents, which suggest the grant process was rigged, out of the hands of the media and, subsequently, the public.
In another case, it took almost a year, and a ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, for law enforcement to release 911 transcripts related to the fatal shooting of two teenagers in Biddeford in December 2012.
The police had visited the scene minutes before the shooting took place. That raised compelling questions regarding the officers’ actions. Rather than address those questions, though, the state argued that the transcripts should be kept secret until trial.
There are also ongoing concerns about how the state budget is negotiated, in both essentially private and outright secret sessions. Lawmakers use what are known as “chairs and leads” meetings as well as caucus meetings to hammer out millions of dollars in state spending out of the public eye.
These are all examples of how government officials will work to keep information private. The actions are not usually malicious — often, they are meant to avoid embarrassment, or to control a political message.
But they are outside the letter or intent of the law, and they are a call for all parties to take stock of how they should respond.
For the media, that means keeping government honest, and reporting honestly about what government does and why it does it.
For the public, that means understanding that government can be messy, and recognizing the difference between sinister intent and human error.
And for government, that means doing its business in public, and explaining it openly to the people who pay the bills.