AUGUSTA — Maine Gov. Paul LePage likes to jot down and fire off personal notes – notes to lawmakers, citizens or just about anybody else who happens to either please him or displease him.

In June 2015, he sent this message to state Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport:

“It is apparent that the Republicans in the Senate and House have not only thrown the Governor under the bus, but now want to take his executive powers. Therefore, beginning today and for the remainder of my term all bills will be vetoed requiring a 2/3rds vote in both Houses,” LePage scrawled on a note card with the state seal on the top of it.

The message is one of dozens that have been sent to lawmakers since LePage took office in 2011. Those that have been made public by people on the receiving end provide a glimpse of the chief executive’s unfiltered thoughts and policy positions, and his feelings about lawmakers and Maine residents who have been critical of him.

Governor LePage note sent to Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo). Credit: Maine Progressives Warehouse

A note Gov. LePage note sent to Senate President Mike Thibodeau

LePage’s staff said there is no record of what the governor writes because the notes are never copied or archived, unless a copy of one is returned in a message back to the governor.

Staff members argue the notes are personal and not public documents that must be saved and accessible to the public. But others, including the state’s archivist and attorney general, say documents created by the governor that discuss state policy or business are public records, whether handwritten or not.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram formally requested a copy of all of the governor’s handwritten notes last year, after one of them included a message that prompted a state-funded charter school to rescind its job offer to one of the governor’s chief political rivals at the State House. Ten months later, the governor’s office provided copies of just three notes. Not included in the document release were the note to the charter school or about 12 that the newspaper had been given over the years by some of the people on the receiving end of the notes.

The governor’s notes, including the three turned over in response to the request and others made public by recipients, vary from personal thank-you messages to statements about policy positions to efforts to sway legislators.

One of the three notes was a response to a Maine citizen who was asking LePage to resign. LePage’s response was cordial: “Thank you for the card. Will take your suggestion under advisement. Have a nice day!”

A 2015 exchange of handwritten notes between Gov. LePage and a citizen

A 2015 exchange of handwritten notes between Gov. LePage and a citizen

The other two handwritten messages LePage’s staff turned over were also ones sent to citizens. Both involve LePage’s stance against providing asylum-seeking immigrants state or federal welfare benefits. In one, LePage appears to correct a letter writer’s assertion that he is suing President Obama.

“I do not have a lawsuit against President Obama,” LePage wrote. “I did file a lawsuit against illegal immigrants taking state money against state and federal laws.”

COPY OF CRITICAL NOTE NEVER SURFACED

In 2015, another of LePage’s handwritten notes set in motion an ongoing lawsuit against him by Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

LePage’s threat to strip Good Will-Hinckley school in Fairfield of $530,000 in state funding if it hired Eves as its next president was communicated in a handwritten note from the governor to the school’s board chairman, Jack Moore. No copies of the actual note have ever surfaced, however.

Moore said he may have discarded the note. A copy was not among the documents the governor’s office released to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in response to a Freedom of Access Act request for all records related to the Good Will-Hinckley incident. That request was fulfilled in 2015.

LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, and his communications director, Peter Steele, said they believe the notes are considered personal messages and his office is not required to retain copies of them.

State Archivist David Cheever and Maine Attorney General Janet Mills are among those who have a different view. Both have said Maine’s Freedom of Access Act pertains to the governor’s handwritten notes when he is discussing state policy or government business.

“I think the statute is self-explanatory about written messages regarding public business,” Tim Feeley, a spokesman for Mills, wrote in a message to the Maine Sunday Telegram. Feeley included the pertinent snippet of the law which reads, in part, “The term ‘public records’ means any written, printed or graphic matter or any mechanical or electronic data compilation from which information can be obtained, directly or after translation into a form susceptible of visual or aural comprehension, that is in the possession or custody of an agency or public official of this State . . .”

LEPAGE’S STAFF ADVISED TO KEEP COPIES

Brenda Kielty, the state’s FOAA ombudsman, has also repeatedly said, “Any government record, regardless of the form in which it is in maintained by an agency or official, can be a public record.”

Cheever also said the notes, depending on their content, may have historical importance. Cheever said he has advised LePage’s staff to keep copies of the notes, but he can’t legally require it.

“I can’t stop or even tell the governor what to do with his notes,” Cheever said. “It would be nice, because it does have a certain expositive value.”

LePage, who promised voters in 2010 that his would be the “most transparent” administration in state history, now has a long record of evading, avoiding or simply ignoring the state’s open records law.

In July, Mills filed a court complaint over the LePage administration’s efforts to keep closed a meeting of a Blue Ribbon Commission on education that was held at the Blaine House, the state’s official governor’s residence, in April. The first hearing on the complaint is scheduled for Monday.

Last Wednesday, copies of text messages sent by LePage’s staff and released by Mills’ office indicated LePage was calling the shots in the effort to keep reporters, the public and even elected officials from attending the meeting despite protests from lawmakers and Kielty who urged LePage’s staff to open the meeting to the public. Some lawmakers had been lobbying LePage’s staff for days, warning the meeting would be against state law if it were held behind closed doors.

The dust-up also caused LePage to reverse a previous policy decision that no state business should be conducted by text message. The anti-texting policy was issued after it was made public that an employee at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said she had been ordered by her superiors and LePage appointees to use text messaging as a way to circumvent FOAA requests.

A June 2012 note from the governor to state Sen. John Patrick, D-Oxford

A June 2012 note from the governor to state Sen. John Patrick, D-Oxford

In 2014 LePage dared Mills, a Democrat, to sue him after she urged him to release a taxpayer-funded Medicaid study nearly four weeks after it came into his administration’s possession.

In 2013, LePage’s administration attempted to brief legislative leaders and members of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee on his proposed two-year budget during a private meeting in his Cabinet room, but after a reporter protested LePage’s attorney at the time agreed the meeting needed to be held in public and allowed the press to attend.

LePage has also proposed legislation that would allow his “working papers” to be exempt from FOAA, similar to an exemption that lawmakers can use when the Legislature is convened. LePage’s staff points out there is no requirement in state law that legislators provide public access to working papers such as personal notes, whether they include state business or not.

Lawmakers’ refusal to grant the governor an exemption in FOAA prompted LePage to tell reporters that he had instructed staff to limit its use of email so that their communications would not be disclosed under the law. “They can’t FOAA my brain,” LePage said at the time.

STAFF: GOVERNOR UNFAIRLY SCRUTINIZED

LePage also has made some efforts to improve transparency.

In 2011, LePage launched the state’s first online portal that allows virtually full disclosure on the salaries for all state workers and other state expenses. Dubbed Maine Open Checkbook, the website’s home page features a photo of a smiling LePage with a welcome message from the governor that reads, “You pay for your government, and you deserve to know how it spends your money. As part of the LePage Administration’s promise to expand public access to information, here you will find up-to-date information on state payroll and vendor payments.”

LePage’s communications team, Bennett and Steele, said LePage has been overly and unfairly scrutinized by the media, more so than other governors. Bennett said LePage’s office has provided “thousands and thousands” of pages of documents under FOAA and always complies with the law.

In 2015, LePage’s staff processed 50 FOAA requests and there have been 30 made so far this year, Steele said. He said the governor’s attorneys also sometimes provide assistance on FOAAs for other executive branch agencies that combined receive between 100 and 180 requests a week. Steele said about 80 percent to 90 percent of the requests come from the media.

“Media should exert the same level of intense scrutiny on the Legislature as they do on the Governor’s Office,” Steele wrote in an email. “They should hammer the Legislature every day in editorials and stories – the same way they do about the Governor’s Office – to insist that the Legislature subject itself to the same stringent requirements of FOAA.”

Steele said an official request for information triggers a thorough document search that can take months to sift through and then to ensure that no protected personal information is being released. He said many requests ask for large volumes of data with no clearly targeted information in mind.

Former administrations also have dealt with scrutiny and a flood of FOAA requests.

David Farmer, who worked as a deputy chief of staff in the office of former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, said the media and the public had equally voracious appetites for public data during Baldacci’s eight years in office. Farmer said Baldacci’s office was also often under pressure to produce documents and records and faced criticism for not doing so quickly at times.

Baldacci also would on occasion write a handwritten note to a citizen, lawmaker or staff member, Farmer said, but they were largely personal messages – a note of kudos or a birthday message. For communicating with lawmakers, Baldacci would either call them or set up face-to-face meetings.

Dennis Bailey, who served as a spokesman for Baldacci’s predecessor, Angus King, now a U.S. senator from Maine, said his boss was a prolific writer of emails, which can be archived digitally, rather than handwritten notes. Cheever, the state archivist, said King even provided printed copies of his email correspondence to the archives when he left office.

Another governor who would write to lawmakers and citizens was Gov. James Longley, according to Cheever. Longley, who served as Maine governor from 1975 to 1979, would pen expansive letters, Cheever said, and like LePage he did not copy them and provide them for the historical record. Many of Longley’s letters were discovered because recipients kept and shared copies of them, Cheever said.