AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has created a business advisory council to advise him on improving Maine’s economic climate but has exempted it entirely from the state’s freedom of information law.

Groups supporting government transparency, including the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the Maine Heritage Policy Center, are criticizing the exemption, saying it is overly broad.

LePage, a Republican, has said that his will be the most transparent administration in Maine history.

He issued the executive order last week to establish the group. It will include the commissioners of the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Department of Labor, as well as the presidents of the University of Maine and community college systems. The order calls for up to 21 other members selected by the governor to represent “a cross-section of Maine industries and Maine businesses, both small and large.”

The group is similar to councils created by previous governors. But unlike other administrations, LePage’s order also cites a need for “candid conversations” to justify exempting the council from compliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access law. The law generally says the public has a right to attend meetings of public bodies and to obtain public records.

LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said the exemption is needed so council members feel comfortable speaking frankly with the governor.

“He likes hearing from people, hearing what they are up against, learning more about what kinds of things need to be changed, what’s working and what’s not working, and this is what that’s going to be for him,” Demeritt said.

Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and owner of Capitol News Service, said access-law exemptions already allow the governor to conduct private meetings.

“It’s like he’s using a sledgehammer here when he could have used a scalpel,” Leary said. “The blanket exemption means we can’t even use the (access law) to find out who’s advising him on this group. The point is, it’s important to know who has the ear of the governor, whoever the governor is.”

Demeritt said Tuesday that he did not know whether LePage had begun appointing people to the council.

As a candidate, LePage signed a pledge from Leary’s coalition citing his support for “the strengthening of the letter and the spirit of Maine’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws.”

LePage also recently signed a proclamation at the request of the coalition naming next week “Sunshine Week” as part of a national initiative promoting the importance of open government.

“It’s certainly not consistent with the spirit of the pledge, particularly when he made it an issue himself during the campaign, that this was going to be the most open and transparent administration,” Leary said.

Demeritt said policy matters would receive appropriate scrutiny.

“When things come out of these meetings, they’ll be regular proposals that get vetted through the regulatory process, through the legislative process,” he said. “These are meetings to have ideas, and then what the governor chooses to move forward with will be done in the open light of day.”

Representatives of the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the Maine Heritage Policy Center also criticized LePage’s move.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” said Shenna Bellows, MCLU executive director and member of the Right-to-Know Advisory Committee. “To block from view any of the discussions of this business advisory council goes too far. A principle of open government means that public policy conversations, even difficult and sensitive ones, are open to public view and scrutiny.”

Chris Cinquemani, spokesman for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank that has received awards for promoting government transparency, said his group was disappointed with the exemption.

“We believe that any information that might be raised in those meetings that would be considered confidential under the current law could be redacted from any freedom of access requests, and it’s a little disappointing that the administration would choose to exempt these meetings from the Freedom of Access law,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who has worked extensively on Maine’s access law, said he recognized the potential sensitive nature of the group and the need to protect participants from publicity, but that the blanket exemption is too much.

“As it is written, it makes everything absolutely exempt in perpetuity, and essentially it really rewrites the template for other groups to be set up,” he said. “Obviously, it appears to be in compliance with the letter of the law, but the language is not tightened up enough, I think, to be within the spirit of the law.”

But State Sen. David Hastings III, R-Fryeburg, Judiciary Committee chairman, said he was not concerned with the exemption because the governor would merely get advice from council members.

“If I thought such an advisory board had any actual power and the right to make a decision that affected the lives of people, then absolutely it should be within the right-to-know law,” Hastings said.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]