March 10, 2013

After first six months, public access chief scores mixed reviews

Activists say they expect Brenda Kielty to evolve in the new position, even if the law ‘basically renders her a diplomat.’

By Michael Shepherd
State House Bureau

(Continued from page 1)

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Brenda Kielty

She eventually negotiated an agreement in which the two parties had an understanding that he'd file a weekly request to reduce the burden.

"It's a challenge to keep the water and sewer going and protect public health," Storer said. "It's good to have someone available to answer these kinds of administrative questions."

Kielty said the mediation process can be limiting -- and hard on her schedule. "It's an informal, voluntary process," Kielty said. "It generally takes a little bit of time."

There have also been more involved requests, like that of Simpson, who runs Cumberland-based MacImage of Maine. The company operates a website that sells access to certain records related to real-estate transactions.

Simpson obtains some of the information for his website by copying it from a free section of the Hancock County Registry of Deeds website.

He sought Kielty's help when the county billed him $5,035 for the records -- even though it had incurred no expenses because he copied the records himself off the Internet.

In a Nov. 8 email, he suggested that Kielty issue an advisory opinion on whether an agency can charge copy fees to someone who makes their own copies, or can effectively compel someone to use and pay for agency resources to make copies of records that are readily accessible.

Simpson contacted Kielty again on Dec. 10 and Jan. 10, letting her know that the invoices from Hancock County were piling up. He said Kielty told him she would contact the county, but she never got involved, and he now has bills from the county totaling $14,501.

"My understanding was if she came down on one side or the other, she was supposed to be coming down on the side of freedom of access," Simpson said. "She's certainly not an advocate, or at least wasn't with me."

Timothy Feeley, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said Simpson's case was not the kind of case that Kielty could resolve with an advisory opinion.

"This was a situation that required an interpretation beyond the scope of the FOAA law," said Feeley, who responded at Kielty's request.

In another case, involving a Portland computer services firm called The MacSmith, Kielty made a more favorable impression.

For months, the company has had trouble obtaining education department email records relating to laptop service contracts on which it had bid.

The MacSmith turned to Kielty in February, after a Department of Education official, Jeff Mao, said he lost emails that are public records -- only to find them eventually on a private backup drive at his home.

After investigating, Kielty wrote a scathing letter to Education Commissioner Bowen on March 1, saying that Mao "has taken an unreasonably long amount of time while he wandered from excuses to blame, finally arriving at a confession of his own technological blunder."

Mao's credibility has suffered, Kielty wrote, "and his ability to ensure that state government records are retained and maintained as required by law is subject to question."

The company said it was happy with Kielty's work.

"We still don't have the information we need, but that's not her fault," said Kerry Charles, a spokeswoman for The MacSmith owner Stan Smith. "Within the confines of her powers, she did a great job. But clearly, the amount of responsibility, power, all that she could do, could be increased."

Still another opinion is held by Ken Capron of Portland, who emailed Kielty after he thought the University of Southern Maine was holding back documents related to the community radio station it runs. Capron said he didn't think Kielty was aggressive enough in resolving his request.

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Today's poll: Ombudsman

Does the state of Maine need a public ombudsman?



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