There were two stories recently that, taken together, illuminate a dangerous trend in Maine from the governor’s office to our local cops and school boards — the erosion of government transparency, and what we can do about it.

“Transparency” is a fancy term for what we used to call being open, telling the truth and having public servants keep the public fully informed of what those public servants, elected by the public, were doing with the public’s resources financed by taxes and fees paid for by the public. Pretty sure that’s why they call it “public service.”

The first story appeared Feb. 5, headlined “Governor’s office dodges requests for travel receipts.” It describes how Gov. Paul LePage and his security detail have traveled widely, to destinations as wide-ranging as California, Texas, Iceland, Finland and Washington, D.C., but have failed to produce detailed accounts of how much tax money they spent on what.

That article also describes how, in a similar display of stonewalling, a Portland lawyer last year was forced to sue the governor’s office to obtain public records regarding legal action LePage had taken against former President Barack Obama.

I support giving any public official the appropriate resources — including travel, lodging and reasonable expenses — to fulfill the duties of their office. But I demand to know exactly how that tax money was spent. Being elected does not somehow exclude you from following the law; it demands that you serve as an example abiding by all laws — even the ones you find inconvenient.

My concern goes way beyond our chief executive’s apparent disdain for transparency. The news is full of examples of town councils and school boards trying to evade public accountability by invoking questionable rationales for “executive sessions” where public business may be conducted in secret. And of police chiefs who refuse to open their activity logs, or politicians who don’t want to tell us who financed their campaigns.

A 2017 task force convened by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court simultaneously recommended that: (a) records of court proceedings are “presumptively public” and courts should be “open and transparent” and, (b) only lawyers should have online access statewide, while the rest of us will need to drive to whichever courthouse might possess the public records to view them. Go figure.

I have a simple question for these folks, from governor to dogcatcher: Who the hell do you think you are?

All public officials should err on the side of openness. We shouldn’t need lawyers and lawsuits to simply discover what the Freedom of Access Act clearly defines as public information. Maine has a wonderful tradition of bean supper-fueled town meetings where the entire populace turns out to vote, line by line, on the town’s budget and whether it’s time to buy a new snowplow. Every time a public official denies a request for public information, we’re losing another piece of that vital Maine tradition. Nothing less than the integrity of our democracy is at stake.

The second pertinent news story was headlined “Library’s essay contest focuses on role of media.” It announced that Skowhegan’s Margaret Chase Smith Library is inviting Maine high school seniors to submit essays on the importance of a free press to democracy. The library holds Sen. Smith’s papers and is dedicated to advancing the ideals of public service and civic engagement.

Encouraging young people to get involved with such civic-centered endeavors is a great response to the trend of politicians acting like they own the place.

The Maine Humanities Council offers similar opportunities for civic engagement through its “World In Your Libraries” speaker program. Under this program, the council sends expert speakers, free of charge, to Maine libraries for discussions on a variety of topics central to the principles of our democracy. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them.) More information is at the council website, under “Library Programs.”

There’s one more thing we can each do as we enter the 2018 election season. Every candidate for public office in Maine should answer this question: If elected, what will your policy be regarding the public’s right to public information?

Transparency is foundational to our democracy. We all have a right to know, not just the media, not just people who can afford lawyers. In our democracy, public officials don’t own the information, we do. So when we want to see it, public servants should never stand in our way.

Chet Lunner, a retired newspaper editor and national news correspondent, was a founder of the Maine chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He lives in Cape Elizabeth.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.