Mainers who have trouble getting information from government agencies soon will have an ally at the State House.
Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature this year funded a public access ombudsman’s position in the Attorney General’s Office. The position was created in 2007 but had never been filled.
It’s one of several significant changes in the state’s Freedom of Access Act that took effect Thursday and are expected to make it easier for Mainers to get public records.
Mal Leary, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, called the move to finally fund the ombudsman’s position “a huge improvement.” Lawmakers budgeted as much as $88,000 for the position, including salary and benefits.
“This person will be there for everyone, to hear right-to-know issues so people don’t have to go to court,” said Leary, who runs Capitol News Service. “That can be a daunting prospect, especially in these economic times.”
The Attorney General’s Office will soon name a lawyer to fill the ombudsman’s position, said Linda Pistner, chief deputy attorney general. The opening was advertised internally and to district attorney’s offices across the state. Three people applied, and interviews have been conducted.
TAKES ‘PERSUASIVE, STRONG’ PERSON
Maine joins several states that fund similar positions, including Connecticut, New York, Washington and Texas, said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
“The person in that position needs to be persuasive and strong,” Bunting said. “Citizens need to have some option besides (filing a lawsuit) when they get the runaround from a public official. When that happens, it’s a disservice to good government.”
Maine’s revamped Freedom of Access Act clarifies various procedures for public information requests and requires each government agency to appoint and train an employee to be its “public access officer.”
“It was an effort to strengthen the existing law and to see that it’s more universally applied,” said state Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, who sponsored the amendments.
As an elected official who both requests and provides access to public documents, Rosen said Maine agencies are a “mixed bag” when it comes to complying with the law. Some actively work to provide access, he said. Others, “not so much.”
GROUP TO HONOR ROSEN
On Thursday, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition plans to honor Rosen for his long-term commitment to open government when members give him the group’s Sunshine Award, Leary said.
Having a public access officer may be wholly new to some government bodies, but many already had someone who handled information requests, including the town of Cumberland. Councilors there formally appointed Town Manager Bill Shane to the position Monday.
Shane said he encourages his staff to provide access to public records without a hassle, and usually without a written request. If anyone asks to see documents, Shane said, his staff will “hand over the file and give them a place to look at it.”
More often these days, records are available in digital form, which makes things easier for everyone.
“We work in a fishbowl. It comes with the paycheck,” Shane said. “If you know what you’re looking for, we should help you find it.”
The updated law also directs public agencies to “consider” buying computer software and other information technology that will maximize access to and exportability of public records while protecting confidential information.
Rosen had hoped for stronger language, he said, but many state officials opposed being forced to buy technology to increase public access.
WHAT ABOUT NUISANCE REQUESTS?
Some say the updated law also falls short in dealing with so-called nuisance or serial requests for public information. That’s when a citizen or group submits multiple requests that take a lot of time to fulfill.
With any request, the first hour of staff time is free. After that, the requester must pay as much as $15 per hour — up from $10 before the changes took effect. If the estimated cost exceeds $100 or the requester has failed to pay past copying fees, an agency may require advance payment.
Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore said he believes the law should go further. He suggests limiting requesters to 10 hours per year when they would be charged the $15 rate. After that, he said, they should be charged the hourly cost of the employee who’s fulfilling the request, including wages and benefits.
Poore said he speaks from experience. He and his staff have spent thousands of hours over the last two years responding to information requests from Michael Doyle, a Falmouth resident who monitors town government.
Poore gets a few requests each week from Doyle, for things like the harbormaster’s fuel receipts and the school superintendent’s emails.
Doyle has paid as much as $2,500 for public records in Falmouth since early 2010, Poore said, but that doesn’t come close to covering the $10,000 to $15,000 in staff time that has been consumed by his requests.
EXTREME REQUESTS ARE RARITY
Still, after more than 20 years as a municipal official, Poore considers Doyle to be a rarity. Few requests for public records take more than an hour to fulfill, he said, and few people seek public documents more than a couple of times in their lives.
Because his experience with Doyle is so unusual, Poore said, he now speaks at public access training sessions offered by the Maine Municipal Association.
“People should have access to public documents,” Poore said. “We try to put everything on our website so people don’t even have to ask. But (Doyle) is taking employees away from their regular work. When does it become a burden on the taxpayers to address this person’s agenda?”
Doyle said he wouldn’t submit so many requests if Poore responded more quickly and completely, the way other towns have responded to his requests. He said he has found evidence that Falmouth has paid too much for goods and services and he believes town officials have withheld documents that would reveal mismanagement.
“I don’t ask for stuff unless I’ve been told there’s something to look for,” Doyle said. “The entire town government should be more open. I’m trying to do what I think is best for Falmouth.”
Doyle said he hadn’t reviewed the latest changes to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, but he’s looking forward to working with the public access ombudsman.
“I’ll probably be using him a lot,” Doyle said, “because I’m pushing a boulder uphill without him.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: