AUGUSTA — The state’s ombudsman said Wednesday that public information officers in all the state’s executive branch agencies will be given training in the handling of public information requests following a dispute between the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and the Maine Warden Service over access to emails by warden service officials.

Ombudsman Brenda Kielty told the Right to Know Advisory Committee that the training would include detailed information on how to handle common disputes that occur between state agency officials and those seeking public records.

The committee, which advises the Legislature on Maine’s public access laws, took no action Wednesday on the dispute between the Press Herald and the warden service over the newspaper’s request under the state Freedom of Access Act for emails between the service and producers of the reality television show “North Woods Law.”

On May 8, the Maine Sunday Telegram published an investigation, titled “North Woods Lawless,” of undercover game warden Bill Livezey’s operation in Allagash. Over two years, the warden befriended local residents and enticed them to commit wildlife crimes, the report found. The operation culminated with a massive 2014 raid that was filmed by a crew for the Animal Planet show. Local residents complained about what they say was an outsized operation considering the nature of the charges.

The warden service disputed the Telegram’s report, and said it contained many inaccuracies.

During its six-month investigation of the undercover operation, the newspaper repeatedly sought copies of warden service records pertaining to the operation, including communications between the agency and producers of the television show. But when the results of the investigation were published in the Maine Sunday Telegram, the warden service still had not released many of the requested public records.

DISPUTE SPURRED TRAINING

Kielty told the right to know advisory panel Wednesday that most public records disputes involve a breakdown in communications, or occur when those requesting information dispute an agency’s estimated costs for producing the records. While Kielty and others did not discuss the specifics of the dispute between the Press Herald and the warden service, the training she referred to appeared to be aimed at elements of the dispute, including teaching state employees how to adequately search the state’s email system.

Members of the right to know panel seemed to agree the dispute should be settled in court. An intentional violation of the law can carry up to a $500 fine, and the government entity can be required to pay the legal fees of the injured party.

“We are not a fact-finding committee or set up to settle disputes,” said Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, the Senate chair of the committee.

Rep. Kim Monaghan, D-Cape Elizabeth, the House chair of the committee, agreed. “We are not here to be the judge and the jury on this whole issue.”

Burns referred to a letter from the newspaper’s attorney, Sigmund Schutz, sent to the committee following a meeting with its two chairmen. According to Burns, Schutz was asked how the law should be changed and the newspaper declined to offer suggestions.

Schutz detailed the newspaper’s efforts to obtain copies of the emails it requested as well as the warden service’s response, which prompted the newspaper to file three formal complaints with Kielty.

LEGISLATIVE ACTION REQUIRED

Schutz wrote that the newspaper isn’t trying to lobby the Legislature, but simply wants to make sure state law is followed. The letter also details the more than eight months it has taken for the warden service to partially comply with the Press Herald’s request, and the service’s attempt to bill the newspaper an additional $400 for providing the email records.

The newspaper has asked the warden service to waive some of the requested fees for the records, as allowed under the law when the information is deemed to be in the public interest.

“The Press Herald simply wants public records to be public, and wants them promptly when it asks for them,” Schutz wrote.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Burns said he believes that the committee’s response was appropriate and that any law changes that may result from the controversy would have to be pursued through legislation.

Also Wednesday, the committee discussed holding a public hearing to review how the state’s FOAA law is working, but did not set a date for that hearing. The committee meets again on Aug. 17.

 

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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