More Open and Accountable Government: Everyone Wants it, Except Government

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Maine government transparency It stands to reason that in light of the current state of government, with all of its scandal, corruption, and  illegal wasting of taxpayer dollars that we would consider strengthening laws that protect the right of the people to know what their government is up to.

That’s why MHPC has worked tirelessly, with a broad coalition of transparency advocates like the MCLU, to bring about the passage of LD 1465, a bill that would strengthen Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA). Many legislators also agree, with more than 30 Republicans and Democrats co-sponsoring the bill.

Here are some of the highlights from the bill:

  • Ensures that public notice is given for all public meetings AT LEAST 3 days beforehand. Right now it’s just “in ample time”, which could mean whatever government wants it to mean.
  • Sets time limits for government to comply with public FOAA requests. The current law requires only that the government entity must respond in a “reasonable time”, a subjective term that is often abused. Stricter timelines make sure that government doesn’t play politics when fulfilling a request. If the timelines cannot be met for logistical reasons on the government agencie’s end, they have to certify why in writing, and they get an extension.
  • Requires government to provide public information in the form it’s asked for. For example, if I ask for data in an excel spreadsheet format, and that is something they have available, the government entity is required to send it that way, and not convert it into a PDF or some other format.
  • Requires someone in every government office be trained to handle FOAA requests. This just makes sure that each office has someone designated to be trained, and oversee, public FOAA requests. This ensures that someone has the knowledge necessary to deal with the requests, and makes someone ultimately responsible for seeing that they are handled.
  • Funds the part time Assistant Attorney General position that would serve as the “FOAA Ombudsman”. This is a key part of the bill. It would designate a staffer in the Attorney General’s office to act as an Ombudsman who can deal with FOAA issues from the public or from government. This person would help solve a lot of the FOAA conflicts that come up, and keep cases from going to court. It also provides a much needed resource for the public when government is stonewalling on requests.

These are just the highlights – there is more to the bill and I encourage you to take a look at the entire thing if you haven’t already.

Yesterday, LD 1465 had its public hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. It was the last bill heard during the afternoon and drew a big crowd of people wishing to testify either in support, opposition, or neither-for-nor-against. It was a fascinating, albeit predictable, break-down when it came to who supported and who opposed this government transparency bill.

Every single person who testified in opposition to the government transparency bill works in, or lobbies for, government. It’s worth noting that basically every opponent started their testimony this way:

I’m a big fan of transparency, BUT

Here’s some opponents of the bill, and a sampling of their key remarks explaining why they oppose increased transparency:

  • Greg Connors, Maine Municipal Association – “unmanageable timelines established”
  • Nathan Poore, Falmouth Town Manager – “burden on agencies to follow unnecessary steps to produce the information”
  • Robert Howe, Maine County Commissioners Association – “creates unreasonable expectations on state, county and municipal agencies for responding”
  • Harry Pringle, Maine School Boards Association – “unfairly burdensome to the school districts” – [Mr. Pringle says “burden” at least three times.]
  • Philip Higgins, Board of Dental Examiners – “would require undo burden on the Board’s limited staff”

Starting to sense a theme? The opposition (government) is crying foul because of the “burden” government would face if greater transparency were put in place. Interesting, because when citizens and taxpayers bring up the overwhelming tax burden it takes to keep these folks employed, they quickly dismiss it as unimportant.

There were many supporters of the bill as well. Here is some of what they had to say:

  • Carol Weston, State Director of American for Prosperity – “Some inconvenience for government is a small price to pay for greater transparency and accountability”
  • Gary Foster, Former Gray City Counsel Chairman – “If an official honors his oath of office and has nothing to hide, fulfilling a request for information is merely a part of the responsibilities and duties of public office.”
  • Tony Ronzio, Maine Press Association – “LD 1465 deserves an ought-to-pass vote…FOAA is a crucial part of governing. Its presence is essential to the public trust. Making it better would serve only to improve public confidence in those entrusted to lead.”
  • Shenna Bellows, Maine Civil Liberties Union – “Eliminating any ambiguity in the law empowers the people of Maine to more fully understand and demand compliance with their legal right to know about a public meeting…or to obtain a public document in a timely manner.”
  • Dawn Hill (D), State Senator District 1 – “LD 1465 is about increasing governmental transparency and enhancing freedom of access laws for the public.”
  • Richard Rosen (R), State Senator District 31 – “We must provide citizens and taxpayers peace of mind that we respect their right to access public records, and we must seize any and all opportunities to strengthen that right.”

MHPC’s Communications Director, Chris Cinquemani, also pointed out in his testimony that when when we filed a FOAA request with Maine Turnpike Authority for their salary and spending information, it took them 184 days to respond (PDF), and now we know why. They were hiding decades of mismanagement and waste of public dollars.

There is no question that greater government transparency is needed. LD 1465 provides that added level of transparency and accountability. It’s also quite clear that government doesn’t like it. That’s a big problem.