Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Sunday's piece about legislation that could weaken Maine's sunshine law is receiving some bounce from supporters of open government, those who think Maine's law is working just fine and those with a political interest in making sure a bill that shields concealed weapons data passes the Legislature.
It's a long story.
It was a lot longer.
The piece was trimmed significantly for print, probably because some of the information was a bit repetitive. However, it's worth resurrecting a few scraps from the cutting room floor here.
A fair amount of space was devoted to how transparency and open government have become buzzword for politicians "who recognize the populist value of lifting the veil on government business."
The story brings up Gov. Paul LePage, who was a strident advocate of open government on the campaign trail in 2010. LePage has had some notable transparency victories, not the least of which is his recently unveiled Open Checkbook site showing government expenditures.
However, LePage has also made moves that counter the move to transparency.
The governor's office is generally regarded among the press as very responsive to Freedom of Access Act requests (h/t to his legal counsel Michael Cianchette), but some journalists have noticed a drop-off in documents and email traffic since his proposal to shield his "working papers" was spiked by the Legislature last year.
Observations from John Christie, head of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, didn't make the final draft of the story, but he said his organization used to receive myriad documents from requests filed with the governor's office, both during Gov. John Baldacci's administration and the LePage administration.
“In the last year, though, we filed a FOAA with Gov. LePage's office and there seemed to be far fewer emails of substance in the documents provided to us,” Christie wrote in an email. “If a story was there -- and we believed it was -- we weren't going to find it through the FOAA process."
That may be because the LePage administration has curbed its use of email and other communication that can be FOAA'd. The governor said as much to Mal Leary, who recalled a conversation during which LePage told him that he'd instructed staff to communicate less with email and more via telephone.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has long list of other examples of governors who campaigned on transparency but have mixed records in applying that standard to their own administrations. It includes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who promised to “run the most open, transparent gubernatorial administration in the history of the universe.” He was later sued by Wisconsin press members for refusing to release public emails.
The reporters committee roundup was written before it was discovered that New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- who touted his “Create Open NY” transparency project -- and his staff had limited its use of email. Instead the administration was communicating with untraceable Blackberry messages.
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Finally, on March 1 Current Publishing published a fascinating opinion column by David Trahan, head of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. Those monitoring the concealed weapons permit debate know that Trahan and SAM support shielding that data for the first time since Maine adopted a concealed weapons law in 1981 (a law that SAM and the National Rifle Association supported).
Trahan took the media to task for wrapping itself "in the flag of the freedom of access law." He also wrote that "some unethical members of the media have created this crisis. Worse, the rest have failed to police their ranks."
The most interesting passage in Trahan's piece is about the anonymous and curiously timed FOAA request from "CelebrationConnect" that lawmakers later said prompted them to enact the emergency shield on CWP data.
Trahan wrote: "Could we surmise these latest FOAA requests for concealed permit holders are also press outlets attempting to avoid the same backlash as the Bangor Daily News? Does anyone else recognize the incredible hypocrisy of journalists using a loophole in the FOAA law to hide their identity and then claiming they support transparency and accountability for everyone else?"
Not sure which journalists Trahan was referring to, but some supporters of the CWP FOAA shield seem to have an interest in keeping that rumor alive.
The rumor begs an obvious question: If a news organization succeeded in obtaining the CWP information secretly, then how would it ever use it for publication and not be discovered?
And then there's this from the Sun Journal story on the increased use of FOAA:
"At the Maine Turnpike Authority, four requests were filed in the last year: for staffing information one particular night; contract details; employees' pay and benefits; and staff emails, W-2s and any 1099s.
Doing the asking, in that order, according to Executive Director Peter Mills and the MTA's staff attorney: an alleged toll violator, a law firm, the Maine Heritage Policy Center and the now-infamous "CelebrationConnect," the anonymous requester whose FOAA helped hasten emergency legislation buttoning up concealed weapons permits in Maine last month."
To recap: "CelebrationConnect" could be an unethical journalist hiding from gun activists' backlash to obtain information that they could likely never publish without being discovered. This same unethical journalist sought turnpike authority records anonymously in attempt to escape backlash from . . . toll payers???
Steve Mistler covers politics and government for the Portland Press Herald. He spends a lot of time in the hallways of the State House.