A Falmouth lawmaker is attempting to tweak the state’s Freedom of Access law to prevent the public release of email addresses of residents who sign up to receive notifications from government organizations.
The bill grew out of a controversy last year in Falmouth, when a local critic of town government requested – and received – thousands of email addresses and used them to contact residents.
If signed into law, the bill would carve out an exemption for the electronic addresses– and ostensibly the identities – of subscribers to town newsletters, notices of public hearings and school information mailings.
Rep. Mary P. Nelson’s bill also could potentially increase the charges for reproducing public records, a provision she said is designed to balance the public’s right to know with government’s challenge to carry out its mission in cash-strapped times.
“I think our statutes have fallen behind our technology,” said Nelson, a Democrat, in a phone interview. For example, she said, a school district can withhold the physical addresses of parents in the district. “I’m not sure why we wouldn’t protect parents’ email addresses also.”
But Judith Meyer, a member of the Right to Know Advisory Committee, and vice president of the Freedom of Information Coalition, said the bill could open the door to deeper and more damaging limitations on public information.
“I think shielding any contact with our government . . . the coming and goings of that, is a big mistake,” said Meyer, who is also a managing editor at the Sun Journal in Lewiston. “At what point do we say, ‘It’s OK to go this far and no further?'”
Meyer said the coalition is split on shielding the emails and will take no position before the House Judiciary Committee. Its opposition to the cost increases for records, however, is unanimous.
Currently, government organizations do not charge for the first hour of staff time to research and fulfill information requests, and each additional hour costs $15. Nelson’s bill would undo that limit, instead tying the price to provide information to the actual cost of the lowest paid employee capable of completing the request.
Nelson’s bill addresses a peculiar situation in Falmouth, in which town employees have been subject to hundreds of information requests, most from one resident, Michael Doyle. Doyle, of Shady Lane, is a frequent and outspoken critic of town government, and has been a fixture at town meetings.
Last year during a referendum campaign to end bus service to Falmouth, Doyle requested the list of about 3,000 email addresses from the town, which it provided, said Nathan Poore, the Falmouth town manager. Doyle used the list to contact residents, Poore said.
Doyle’s requests also have raised concerns about the cost of document reproduction. In June, Doyle requested every email Falmouth Superintendent Barbara Powers sent or received in a 50-day period ending June 19, 2012.
Powers said the request took her office months to fulfill, with her working a half-hour each day to pick over and redact more than 2,900 pages of messages. Doyle was charged more than $900 for the records, but the real cost would have been closer to $4,000 if there was no limit, Powers said. “This had no point,” Powers said.
Doyle, reached by phone, said he feels the local government has used email lists to push a political agenda, a claim that Powers has denied.
“This is a big infringement on public access,” Doyle said, suggesting that even a small change to the law might limit public access in the long run. “This is the nose of the camel under the tent.”
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: This story was revised at 11:05 a.m., Jan. 30, 2013, to state that the cost of a 2012 request for information fulfilled by the Falmouth Schools superintendent was approximately $4,000. Incorrect information supplied to the Portland Press Herald.