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 mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

(Continued from page 2)

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Brenda Kielty

But he doesn't necessarily blame her, saying she doesn't have enough power for his liking.

"I think she's following her mandate well, but I think the Legislature needs to say, 'We need open government,'" he said. "They need to say, 'Go get 'em.'"

CAN OFFER ONLY ADVISORY OPINIONS

Davis, the Missouri journalism professor who studies public access, points out that an ombudsman's work largely reflects how state law defines their authority.

"You could have the best ombuds-person in the world in a bad structure and they're not going to do a very good job, because they're going to get stymied at every turn," he said.

Kielty presides over a one-person division, with a two-year budget of less than $140,000. That contrasts sharply with states such as Connecticut, which is seen by many as the gold standard in the field. It  established its ombudsman's office in 1975 and now operates the program under a five-person board, with a budget in fiscal 2012 of nearly $1.8 million.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found in 2011 that 19 states have ombudsman agencies or officers to deal with public access issues. Among those states, more than half the ombudsmen can't issue binding opinions, the committee found.

Maine's ombudsman is a part of that group. Kielty only has the authority to offer advisory opinions, if requested. She cannot compel citizens or agencies to submit to mediation.

Davis said mediation, while important, shouldn't be an ombudsman's most forceful tool.

Mal Leary, a journalist and member of the state's Right to Know Advisory Committee, said open-records advocates wanted the Legislature to give the ombudsman more power but had to compromise and settle for limits when the position was created.

"That's what we were able to get the votes to do," he said.

IN THE FUTURE: 'LOTS OF POSSIBILITIES'

Kielty's first report to the Legislature is due Friday, and she said she didn't want to divulge details before its release. However, she said that in the near term, a main goal will be to create a town-by-town directory of public access officers. A 2011 law requires every agency, county, municipality, school district and regional or other political subdivision have an employee designated to respond to information requests.

If that's done, Kielty said, she can focus access-law training toward those people and if the information is public, citizens will virtually always know where to go.

"That's the kind of advocacy I can foresee right now because we've got things that we could do that we haven't done yet," she said.

But she said that in the long term, digitizing state records that are now kept on paper or in difficult-to-access digital forms will be necessary to enable agencies to respond more quickly to records requests.

"If the quantity of information continues to grow and the requests continue to grow, can the systems in place -- that are primarily paper systems -- really meet that?" she said. "There are lots of possibilities probably for putting information that's public on a website."

Leary, the journalist, and Judith Meyer, a journalist at the Lewiston Sun Journal and member of the right-to-know advisory panel, said they expect the ombudsman job to evolve with time.

Meyer said Kielty's mission now is simple: "She tries to work with people to try to reach an understanding," she said.

For Earl Brechlin, editor of the Bar Harbor-based weekly Mount Desert Islander and president of the Maine Press Association, Kielty's appointment was an important step in improving the right-to-know culture in Maine.

He said some may be expecting too much of the ombudsman right now.

"Some people think it's going to be an arrangement where you're going to call her and she's going to take the fall for you," Brechlin said. "It's different when you're an ombudsman and not an activist. Those two terms aren't necessarily interchangeable."

State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

 

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Today's poll: Ombudsman

Does the state of Maine need a public ombudsman?

Yes

No

View Results