March 3, 2010

Fed up with governing by e-mail

By Bill Nemitz

Hear ye, hear ye, good citizens of Raymond. Henceforth, Selectman Dana Desjardins is officially offline.

''I'd just as soon talk to people,'' Desjardins said this week. ''The people in my community, if they want to talk to me, they can call me up. They know where I live. I'm pretty easy to access.''

Desjardins, now in his ninth year as a selectman, recently let it be known via the Lakes Region Weekly that he has abandoned his town-provided e-mail address. He pulled the plug, he said, for two reasons.

The first is that Desjardins, who works by day as an electrical contractor, has far better things to do than come home each evening and spend two or three hours responding to e-mails from constituents. He'd much rather they give him a call or, better yet, pull over in front of his house to chat while he horses around with his kids.

Secondly, Desjardins is fed up with what he calls a ''secret society'' among elected officials -- including, at times, his fellow selectmen -- who prefer deliberating in cyberspace to getting down and dirty in a public meeting.

And he's not alone.

Among the bills awaiting the 124th Maine Legislature as it begins its second regular session today is ''An Act to Further Regulate the Communications of Members of Public Bodies.''

Sponsored by Rep. Stacy Dostie, D-Sabattus, it's an admittedly tricky attempt to prevent elected officials from using the group e-mail as an escape hatch from Maine's Freedom of Access Act.

''I think we're all a little uneasy about this whole situation,'' said Dostie. ''I'd like to see more transparency and more honesty.''

Dostie's bill would prohibit ''group electronic mail'' among a quorum of members of a public body if the contents of the e-mail involve a ''substantive matter'' before that body. Translation: Debate with your vocal chords in open session, not with your keyboard when the doors are locked down at the town hall.

Dostie said she began her crusade last summer after three of Sabattus' five selectmen allegedly negotiated the resignation of the town manager before anyone outside the loop -- including the two other selectmen -- knew any such move was afoot.

How the consensus was reached still isn't clear, Dostie said. But the whole affair left her convinced that too much government business is being conducted under the public radar -- and not just at the municipal level.

Last fall, state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, acknowledged that more than 20 e-mails had been exchanged among lawmakers during budget deliberations by the Legislature's Education Committee, which Alfond chairs.

Alfond, who later turned over the e-mails to comply with a Freedom of Access request by the Kennebec Journal, defended the practice at the time as ''a quick, useful way to get business done.'' Still, he conceded to KJ reporter Matthew Stone that ''the public didn't get to see the discussion.''

It's too early to predict how far Dostie's bill might go in keeping the cyber-curtain permanently open. Even Mal Leary, owner of the Capitol News Service and president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, notes that curtailing group e-mails must be balanced with ''the First Amendment right for these people to talk to one another.''

''The issue really goes to the deliberate attempt to circumvent the public having any idea, any inkling, of what's going on with an issue that is before (a public body),'' Leary said.

Take, for example, a town's seemingly straightforward need to buy a new firetruck, he said.

''Say, instead of talking about this in an open forum, they send a bunch of e-mails to one another: 'Well, what do you think we should do?' 'Should we bond for this?' Should we take it out of reserves?''' Leary said. ''All of a sudden it's out of the view of everyone except the members of the board. And the people who might be attending the (public) meeting go, 'What?'''

Leary, while withholding judgment on Dostie's bill until he sees the final language, said the justifiable concern over government-by-e-mail is as much a sign of the times as the live streaming of legislative committee hearings over the Internet.

''Technology is cutting both ways here,'' he said. ''It's making things more open, and at the same time it's allowing things to become more opaque when they shouldn't be, particularly in this example of folks exchanging e-mails.''

Which brings us back to Raymond, where Dana Desjardins, in addition to shutting down his e-mail account, planned to stop by the town office this week and surrender his municipal laptop.

Go ahead and tell him he's swimming against the tide if you must -- just be sure to do it by phone. His number, which he shares freely, is right there on the town's Web site.

''Let's do the people's business the old-fashioned way,'' Desjardins said. ''And let's do the people's business out in the open -- not behind a computer monitor.''


Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


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