Thursday, December 12, 2013
By Steve Mistler firstname.lastname@example.org
State House Bureau
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Gov. Paul LePage displays his concealed-carry permit in a photo posted to his Twitter account on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. Legislators will consider a bill to block access to personal information about people who hold concealed-weapons permits.
BILLS THAT COULD ROLL BACK PUBLIC ACCESS
• L.D. 345, sponsored by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, which would block access to personal information about who holds concealed-weapons permits. The Legislature, invoking a constitutional emergency, has already approved a temporary shield to this information following backlash against a Bangor newspaper's plans to request the data for a reporting project. The temporary block was urged by Gov. Paul LePage, whose vow to have the "most transparent administration" in state history is juxtaposed against what one observer described as the governor's "enigmatic" record of open government.
• L.D. 495, sponsored by Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, which would give Maine State Police permission to withhold transcripts of 911 calls.
• L.D. 104, sponsored by Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, which would exempt from public disclosure the email addresses of residents who sign up to receive notifications from government organizations. Nelson's bill would also increase fees for requesting public records.
Nelson, who recently testified on behalf of the bill, argued that subscribing to town newsletters should not trigger "unwelcome, townwide solicitations or even identity theft."
Another legislator, Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, is sponsoring a bill to shield 911 dispatch transcripts. The proposal was submitted after the Portland Press Herald filed a lawsuit in Cumberland County Superior Court asking a judge to overturn the state's denial of the newspaper's public-records request for 911 transcripts associated with an open homicide investigation in Biddeford.
Privacy, public safety and the threat of identity theft are being cited to support a bill by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, that would make concealed-weapons permit data confidential. The data has been public since 1981, when Maine's concealed-weapons law was enacted.
Wilson's bill was filed after a New York newspaper, in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, published lists and an online map of all handgun permit owners in two counties. Support for Wilson's bill mushroomed when the Bangor Daily News filed a request for Maine concealed-weapons information last month.
That request was later withdrawn, but it stirred such concern that the Legislature overwhelmingly passed an immediate, 60-day ban on releasing concealed-weapons information, until Wilson's bill can be heard and debated.
Laurenellen McCann, a national policy expert for the Sunlight Foundation, said many efforts at the state level to take information off the public record have a narrow focus. But she said these efforts to address isolated problems can have a cumulative impact on government transparency.
That's the concern among open-records advocates in Maine, who were dealt a blow when the Legislature passed the emergency measure to temporarily shield the concealed-weapons data.
"We took a hit," said Judy Meyer, managing editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. "And when I say, 'we,' I don't just mean the press. I mean we the people."
AUDIT SHOWED POOR COMPLIANCE
Concerns about Maine's willingness to open government to public scrutiny are nothing new.
Just over 10 years ago, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition dispatched a team of volunteers across the state to request public records from towns and police departments.
An audit report on the effort documented woeful compliance with the laws, including instances during which the volunteer auditors, some college students, were either denied or intimidated by police officers for requesting public documents.
The audit, highly publicized on New Year's Day in 2003, prompted action by the Legislature, which was "embarrassed," according to Mal Leary, president of the coalition.
State and local public officials now receive mandatory training to help comply with the law, and lawmakers established the Right to Know Advisory Committee, which reviews proposed changes to the law and offers recommendations to the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
"We try to get rid of the bad (exemptions) and prevent new ones," Leary said. "Not many other states have that process."
Still, states like Texas, Florida and Vermont have much stronger sunshine laws. In Florida, government transparency is written into the state constitution, which means that attempts to change or weaken the law require a supermajority of the Florida Legislature or a citizens initiative.
Not so in Maine. Not only can the Legislature easily alter the open-records law, but it also appoints members to the Right to Know Advisory Committee.
Although the panel is populated by open-records advocates, Schutz, the media attorney, said it has also included "complete failures" and "government types." Schutz's didn't identify specific members, but noted that the panel is appointed by the governor, the Senate president and House speaker -- politicians whose interests may not always align with open-government efforts.
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