Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is our state’s sunshine law and it has gotten more than its share of the political spotlight over the last two weeks. With some limited exceptions the statute guarantees access to the public records and proceedings of state and local governments.

FOAA is a critical tool for maintaining openness and transparency in government. I offer that assessment despite firsthand, front-page and forever available on the Internet experiences with the law that didn’t exactly work out for me during my time in the LePage Administration.

My favorite FOAA request came from MaineToday Media reporter Steve Mistler. He wanted access to Department of Labor security camera footage the weekend the labor mural was removed. The last thing I needed was footage of me with my power drill and crowbar on the Internet so I was thankful that the cameras did not capture the actual dismantling of the mural.

I am kidding. The craftsmen handling the mural had far more skill than I, but I still thought the mythical force of Star Wars fame was strong with Mistler on the day he made that request.

Far and away my toughest experience with government transparency was authorizing the release of my salary information to a reporter using public documents to prepare a front-page, above-the-fold story about the financial distress I was facing as the owner of two failing small businesses. It was also my last.

Despite the personal and professional grief FOAA caused me, these requests were perfectly appropriate applications of Maine’s Right to Know laws. We need transparency so citizens can monitor their government.

One of the questions we need to be asking ourselves following FOAA’s two weeks in the sun is should government transparency be a tool for citizens to monitor and distribute information about each other?

In this digital age every piece of publicly available information generated by state and local governments is just a smartphone and an Internet connection away from becoming global and historic. My sewer liens, your hunting license or our neighbor’s correspondence to our elected officials can be accessed and distributed by anyone for any purpose.

The emergency legislation signed by Gov. Paul LePage last week delays the release of concealed weapons permit information until April 30 of this year. As lasting proposals are considered that would apply to weapons permits we should take a broader look at protecting individual privacy.

The right answer may not limit transparency and access to information but rather establish legal limits on distribution and use.

Maine’s concealed weapons permitting system needs reform. Both state and municipal agencies issue permits, but we lack a uniform, statewide database that can be accessed by law enforcement or the courts. Meanwhile the licensing division of the state police is working through a three-month backlog on permit applications despite a statutory requirement that permits be issued in 30 days.

When an agency or system of government is not performing optimally or when public safety lies in the balance we should hope for and expect hard questions from citizens, stakeholder groups and the media.

The Bangor Daily News, which kicked off the controversy over concealed weapons permits in Maine with its FOAA request, has an obligation to the public to ask hard questions of government and, when necessary, gain direct access to public information. But in this case their timing was extremely unfortunate.

Weeks before the BDN request a newspaper in New York published the names and addresses of residents in that area holding concealed weapons permits. The decision violated the privacy of residents and lets criminals in the Hudson Valley of New York know where they can go to steal guns. It was irresponsible journalism.

The BDN had no intention of violating the privacy of permit holders through a mass release of names and addresses. But when the controversy kicked up they could have done a better job of explaining the role its request would play in improving public safety.

Theirs is a story of a news organization taking an enterprising approach to better reporting and a safer community. I hope the BDN’s leadership shares that story and contributes directly to the debate on privacy and transparency over the next couple of months.

Republicans led by LePage had a very good couple of weeks leading the fight to protect the freedom and privacy of law- abiding gun owners. Temporarily shielding the identity of concealed weapons permit holders was the right move given the times and circumstances.

Our leaders in Augusta now have two months to move beyond good politics and make good policy. Hopefully they have enough time and seats at the table to develop a plan that protects privacy, improves public safety and preserves our vital access to public records and proceedings.

Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @demerittdan