The public’s right to know how its government is exercising its power is fundamental to our democracy. Over and over again, however, it is treated as an afterthought.

The latest case concerns the state’s Judicial Branch, which for years has been automatically sealing from public view cases in which charges were ultimately dismissed, restrictions a federal appeals court has ruled unconstitutional.

The courts were notified of the problem in 2015 and, pushed by the Lewiston Sun Journal and other media organizations, promised to rectify it in 2016. But the changes were never made.

A Sun Journal reporter last month realized the cases were still being sealed. A court spokeswoman said that a computer program was inadvertently not updated and has now been fixed.

It’s impossible to know how many requests for these public records have been wrongly rejected in the four years since this problem was first discovered — or to put it another way, how many times a member of the public has been kept from getting the information they are legally entitled to.

The information is clearly of a public interest. When charges are made, then dismissed, the public should have an accurate record showing that, so that it can be sure the process was above board. Similarly, a person who faced charges that were ultimately dismissed should be able to show that through public records.

If sealing the records was a simple oversight, it wouldn’t be the first time. Though Maine’s government transparency laws are clear, and every elected and appointed official is duly informed of their duties related to them, they are routinely thrown out the window.

Just recently, when the pandemic hit, multiple officials at the local and state level shut out the public while they shared important information, argued over next steps, and even made binding decisions.

Last year, the Portland City Council held site walks on a controversial plan to move the city’s homeless shelter without notifying the public, with councilors saying they didn’t see it as a public meeting, though clearly it was.

In 2012, the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention destroyed public records showing how millions of dollars in state funds were allocated for public health grants. A state representatives said it was not intentional, but a “system failure.”

Those failures occur when government puts the public’s right to know secondary to everything else. In Maine, there is little besides a commitment to good governance to keep them from doing just that.

There is no real official oversight for Maine’s right-to-know laws, and very few consequences for violations, making it easy for even well-intentioned people to forget about them.

It is even worse when someone wants to outright flout the law, like Gov. Paul LePage did on multiple occasions, including withholding for years information on his trips to Washington, D.C., during which he spent taxpayer money at hotels owned by the president.

Public records and meetings are public for a reason. The public deserves to know how its money is being spent. Secret deliberations make accountability impossible, and they lead to bad decisions. A lack of transparency in general degrades the public’s trust in its institutions, and ultimately in the laws and policies that hold our society together.

Public officials have an obligation to know and follow the right-to-know laws.

More than that, Maine needs those laws to mean what they say.

 


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