December 16, 2013

Legislative panel considering deadlines for filling freedom-of-information requests

Officials who would have to comply argue that it can take months to fulfill such requests because of a bombardment of queries seeking hundreds of pages of records

By Alanna Durkin
The Associated Press

AUGUSTA — A Maine legislative panel is examining whether to set a deadline for government officials to release documents sought under freedom-of-information laws. However, officials who would have to comply argue that it can take months to fulfill such requests because of a bombardment of queries seeking hundreds of pages of records.

Gov. Paul LePage’s office says responding to requests from news organizations and advocacy groups takes up a lot its time and resources.

Under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, officials must acknowledge within five days that they’ve received a request. Records for inspection or copying must be produced “within a reasonable amount of time,” but there’s no law saying how quickly they have to produce the documents.

A lack of specificity in the law opens it to interpretation and abuse, say advocates for freedom of information.

Mal Leary, a member of the state’s Right-to-Know Advisory Committee and a reporter with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, said the panel has received several complaints from news organizations, lawyers and advocacy groups who say they never know when they’re going to receive documents they’ve requested.

“What’s hardest to do is to figure out if someone is trying to stonewall you or if there is a legitimate reason” for why the response is taking so long, Leary said. The committee, made up of lawmakers and appointees and including members of the public and the media, recommends changes to the state’s open records law.

It’s considering drafting legislation that would require state government officials to produce requested documents within 30 days or explain why they were unable to respond within that timeline, Leary said. The panel will discuss the proposal when it meets next week.

Responding to requests can burden officials who regularly have to work longer hours to gather and sort through documents, said Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage.

The governor’s office receives six to 10 Freedom of Access requests a month, and the average number of documents produced for each request is about 500, with some requests yielding as many as 5,000 pages, Bennett said. The governor’s counsel has to go through every document to ensure no confidential information is released.

“The function of adhering to FOA within our office comes secondary to our primary job responsibilities,” she said.

Democratic Rep. Barry Hobbins of Saco, former chairman of the Right-to-Know Advisory Committee, said instituting time limits is a delicate balance because it could also result in the government waiting 30 days to return all requests – even those that should only take a few days.

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