September 2, 2012

Lifting the lid on government data

The newly funded Maine public access ombudsman is expected to make it easier for Mainers to obtain public records.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Mainers who have trouble getting information from government agencies soon will have an ally at the State House.

CLARIFICATIONS, ADDITIONS TO FREEDOM OF ACCESS ACT

Each state, county, municipal, school and regional agency must appoint and train an existing employee to be its "public access officer."

Public agencies must acknowledge and fulfill requests to inspect or copy public records "within a reasonable period of time."

If an agency plans to fulfill a request, an official must provide a good-faith, nonbinding estimate of how long it will take.

  If a request is denied, an official must respond in writing within five business days and state the reason for the denial. A denial may be appealed to Superior Court within five business days.

Inspection, translation or copying of public records may be scheduled when it won't interfere with regular agency operations.

An agency must provide public records in electronic form if they're requested, available and don't contain confidential information that cannot be separated.

An agency isn't required to create a record that doesn't exist or provide access to a computer terminal to view digital documents.

The maximum hourly fee that an agency may charge to research and compile requested public records increased from $10 to $15, after the first hour of staff time per request.

If the estimated cost exceeds $30, an agency must notify a requester before proceeding. If it exceeds $100 or the requester has failed to pay past copying fees, an agency may require advance payment.

When buying computer software and other information technology, all government agencies must "consider" whether it will maximize access to and exportability of public records while protecting confidential information.

Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature this year funded a public access ombudsman's position in the Attorney General's Office. The position was created in 2007 but had never been filled.

It's one of several significant changes in the state's Freedom of Access Act that took effect Thursday and are expected to make it easier for Mainers to get public records.

Mal Leary, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, called the move to finally fund the ombudsman's position "a huge improvement." Lawmakers budgeted as much as $88,000 for the position, including salary and benefits.

"This person will be there for everyone, to hear right-to-know issues so people don't have to go to court," said Leary, who runs Capitol News Service. "That can be a daunting prospect, especially in these economic times."

The Attorney General's Office will soon name a lawyer to fill the ombudsman's position, said Linda Pistner, chief deputy attorney general. The opening was advertised internally and to district attorney's offices across the state. Three people applied, and interviews have been conducted.

TAKES 'PERSUASIVE, STRONG' PERSON

Maine joins several states that fund similar positions, including Connecticut, New York, Washington and Texas, said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

"The person in that position needs to be persuasive and strong," Bunting said. "Citizens need to have some option besides (filing a lawsuit) when they get the runaround from a public official. When that happens, it's a disservice to good government."

Maine's revamped Freedom of Access Act clarifies various procedures for public information requests and requires each government agency to appoint and train an employee to be its "public access officer."

"It was an effort to strengthen the existing law and to see that it's more universally applied," said state Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, who sponsored the amendments.

As an elected official who both requests and provides access to public documents, Rosen said Maine agencies are a "mixed bag" when it comes to complying with the law. Some actively work to provide access, he said. Others, "not so much."

GROUP TO HONOR ROSEN

On Thursday, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition plans to honor Rosen for his long-term commitment to open government when members give him the group's Sunshine Award, Leary said.

Having a public access officer may be wholly new to some government bodies, but many already had someone who handled information requests, including the town of Cumberland. Councilors there formally appointed Town Manager Bill Shane to the position Monday.

Shane said he encourages his staff to provide access to public records without a hassle, and usually without a written request. If anyone asks to see documents, Shane said, his staff will "hand over the file and give them a place to look at it."

More often these days, records are available in digital form, which makes things easier for everyone.

"We work in a fishbowl. It comes with the paycheck," Shane said. "If you know what you're looking for, we should help you find it."

The updated law also directs public agencies to "consider" buying computer software and other information technology that will maximize access to and exportability of public records while protecting confidential information.

Rosen had hoped for stronger language, he said, but many state officials opposed being forced to buy technology to increase public access.

WHAT ABOUT NUISANCE REQUESTS?

Some say the updated law also falls short in dealing with so-called nuisance or serial requests for public information. That's when a citizen or group submits multiple requests that take a lot of time to fulfill.

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