Release: Maine Policy Calls on Mills Administration to Comply with Maine’s FOAA Law
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 1, 2022
Contact: Jacob Posik
Director of Communications
Maine Policy Calls on Mills Administration to Comply with
Maine’s Public Records Law
Numerous executive branch departments are acting in bad faith related to Maine’s FOAA law to an extent
Maine Policy has not seen in its 20-year history.
PORTLAND, Maine – Wednesday, May 25, 2022 marked the one-year anniversary of a pair of Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) requests submitted by journalist Katherine Revello on behalf of The Maine Wire to the Office of Governor Janet Mills. Neither request had received a time and cost estimate to be fulfilled until Maine Policy made it clear to the governor’s office last week that it would be drawing public attention to the administration’s inability to comply with Maine’s FOAA law after one year of inaction. Once notified, the governor’s office offered to produce documents related to one request at no cost by the end of this week.
When Revello last inquired about the status of the requests on January 25, 2022, Gov. Mills’ deputy legal counsel, Timothy Feeley, responded, “Thanks for the prod. I’ll see if I can make some progress on these.” Five months later, there was no official movement on either request until the exchange last week.
The now more-than-one-year-old requests concern internal communications within the governor’s office related to the decision to issue a stay-at-home order, and communications between Mills’ office and the Maine Education Association related to school reopening guidelines.
In total, The Maine Wire has 11 outstanding FOAA requests across state government, submitted between May 25, 2021 and October 8, 2021, where the various departments and agencies to which they were submitted have not provided a time or cost estimate to fulfill the request. For those requests where a time and cost estimate has been provided, the department or agency has failed to produce documents in the timeline provided after fees were paid, and repeated inquiries on the status of the requests have gone unanswered.
This includes requests to Gov. Mills’ office and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) related to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) unlawful attempts to bar certain journalists from participating in Maine CDC press briefings last October. The requests, submitted on October 8, 2021, ask for communications within DHHS and the governor’s office related to “The Maine Wire”, “Maine Beacon”, “Maine Policy Institute”, and “Maine People’s Alliance” in connection with the agency’s failed “advocacy journalist” policy.
On June 11, 2021, The Maine Wire also submitted a FOAA request for Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah’s emails between March 1, 2020 and June 1, 2020. After receiving an initial time and cost estimate to fulfill the request, the timeframe was further narrowed on two occasions. Maine Policy Institute and The Maine Wire paid in advance the fees associated with this request after it was narrowed on July 14, 2021. On November 19, 2021, DHHS offered rolling production of documents to begin within two to three weeks. On December 17, 2021, the agency suggested The Maine Wire further narrow its request after the fees had already been paid several months earlier.
On January 17, 2022, Brenda Kielty, the state’s FOAA ombudsman, asked the FOAA compliance officer at DHHS “how an agency can portray a competent, good-faith commitment to transparency while at the same time failing to achieve even a partial, rolling production of documents that have already been collected. I also realize that Commissioner level communications can be time consuming to produce, but these records also hold enormous public interest and the balance weighs heavily in favor of prompt disclosure.”
Six months following the department’s offer on Nov. 19, 2021 to produce documents on a rolling basis beginning in two to three weeks, not a single document has been turned over related to this request.
Other outstanding FOAA requests include:
- Copies of DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew’s emails, submitted to DHHS on June 11, 2021;
- Emails belonging to Gov. Mills’ chief of staff, Jeremy Kennedy, submitted to the governor’s office on June 11, 2021;
- Documents and communications related to the inspection performed at Aquaboggan Water Park in 2020 and its subsequent closure, submitted to DHHS on 8/3/2021;
- Communications between the Maine Education Association and the Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner Pender Makin related to school reopening guidelines, submitted to DOE on 8/11/2021;
- Communications between the governor’s office and the Department of Marine Resources related to the Shawmut Dam, submitted to the governor’s office on 9/6/2021; and
- A copy of the internal survey of the vaccination rate among executive branch employees performed by the Department of Administrative and Financial Services (DAFS), submitted to DAFS on 9/20/2021.
Most of the requests submitted to various executive branch departments concern how the Mills administration made decisions and wielded unprecedented authority over the lives of Maine people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and state of emergency. As noted by the state’s FOAA ombudsman, there is great public interest in understanding these matters and the balance weighs heavily in favor of prompt disclosure. However, various departments within the executive branch continue to stonewall the requests by employing delay tactics and failing to respond to numerous inquiries on the status of the requests, preventing the information from becoming public.
In addition, Maine Policy requested from DHHS the cycle threshold value for positive COVID-19 PCR tests administered by state labs between 10/1/2020 and 10/15/2021. After providing this data for tests performed between March and September of 2020 for $600, the agency quoted a cost of $6,000 to turn over this information which belongs to the public. Maine Policy has never received such an expensive quote to obtain public data in its 20-year history. Since the start of the pandemic, the governor’s office and Maine DHHS have been the most opaque and noncompliant in responding to FOAA requests among all agencies and departments to which our requests have been submitted.
“There is a clear pattern here within the Mills administration to dodge public records requests and attempt to conceal information that belongs to the people of Maine,” said CEO Matthew Gagnon. “The governor, when serving as attorney general, once criticized her predecessor’s administration for sitting on a report for three weeks. Employees of Maine Policy and The Maine Wire have waited more than a year for valuable information of public interest, yet staff within executive branch departments and the governor’s office seemingly cannot be bothered to provide a simple time and cost estimate to produce documents as required by law, within one year in which the requests were made.
“Maine Policy received a Sunshine Award during the Baldacci administration for its efforts to make government data and information open, accessible and transparent. Similarly, the LePage administration responded quickly to our FOAA requests. The same cannot be said of executive branch departments during the Mills administration. One full year of delay tactics and noncompliance is inexcusable,” said Gagnon.
This is not the first time that the Mills administration has been accused of skirting the state’s open meetings and public records law. In April 2020, the Portland Press Herald discovered the Mills administration held nine secret meetings with lawmakers between March 20 and April 15 without public notice, and the governor’s staff made no attempt to document or record the meetings held with lawmakers.
Maine Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to expand individual liberty and economic freedom in Maine. Learn more about our work at www.mainepolicy.org.