The best way for government to maintain the public trust is to keep its decision-making process as open and accountable as possible. Making a mistake isn’t nearly as destructive to credibility as trying to cover it up.

Exhibit A: The fate of records that helped justify $4.7 million in state grants for regional health programs. What happened to the documents isn’t exactly clear. It is obvious, though, that the supervisors who dealt with the documents have failed to fulfill their duty to the public. And with mechanisms for enforcing public records laws largely absent, don’t expect greater openness any time soon.

The controversy centers on money distributed to agencies that carry out health initiatives, such as smoking cessation and fitness programs, under the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Center for Disease Control. When funds were cut and the money had to be reallocated, the Sun Journal of Lewiston asked state officials for records that would show why funding to rural agencies increased while awards to agencies in more populated areas were slashed.

That request, according to a then-CDC employee, led her boss to order her to destroy the records. Sharon Leahy-Lind has since resigned and has filed suit, claiming she was physically assaulted when she refused the order. The state Attorney General’s Office is investigating Class D claims that the CDC documents were deliberately destroyed.

Both of these cases are still playing out. Meanwhile, an Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability probe has concluded that the CDC used subjective, inconsistent criteria to make its grant decisions and that CDC supervisors ordered that the grant documents not be retained.

The watchdog agency’s report underscores that DHHS and CDC management misapprehend how and why they should handle public documents. Managers told OPEGA that they considered draft versions of documents related to the competitive awards to be “working” papers, not something that had to be kept and produced on public request.

But when the working documents are “the only written record” of the selection process, as the state watchdog found, their absence means that it’s impossible for members of the public to get the answers they deserve to questions about expenditures involving their tax dollars. What’s more, the CDC, under these circumstances, can’t make a believable case for its decisions.

Accountability for retaining and releasing public records is lacking at the state level. Willfully destroying or removing public documents possessed by a state entity is a Class D crime, but it’s difficult for prosecutors to prove that the action was deliberate. It doesn’t help that not every state agency has a dedicated records officer. (The Maine State Archives doesn’t have the staff to ensure that state employees are keeping required records.)

The CDC records controversy is just another example of the LePage administration’s resistance to transparency. (Witness the delays in releasing a consultant’s report on the possible impact of Medicaid expansion, despite media requests.) And unless residents of Maine make a concerted push for openness, state government will willingly continue to keep us in the dark.

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