Mainers concerned about government accountability got good news Wednesday. That’s when the state’s Right to Know Advisory Committee reversed course and decided that it will discuss the Maine Warden Service’s handling of requests for public records on its undercover operations.

The warden service has been under fire since the publication May 8 of “North Woods Lawless,” reporter Colin Woodard’s six-month Maine Sunday Telegram investigation into allegations that an undercover warden enticed poaching suspects into breaking the law by giving them alcohol and violating the regulations he was supposed to be enforcing.

The warden service wouldn’t talk to Woodard. And it has refused to give the Telegram public records, including copies of its communications with the producers of the reality TV series “North Woods Law,” who filmed the raid that was the culmination of the poaching sting. Of the documents that have been turned over, some have been heavily redacted – including a copy of the service’s undercover policies.

But hopes that the warden service would be pressured into transparency soon were dashed. First, legislators on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee announced June 1 that they were letting the entire matter drop, apparently taking their cue from warden service Col. Joel Wilkinson, who declared at a one-sided hearing that day: “I’m not going to put my officer under investigation because someone misprints false allegations.”

Then last week, the Right to Know Advisory Committee announced that it had no plans to take up the stonewalling at its monthly meeting June 22. Why? Well, the public records panel normally takes its direction from the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, state Sen. David Burns, who chairs both panels, told the Press Herald. And since Judiciary Committee members had made no such request, that was that.

Fortunately, the advisory panel as a whole recognizes the significance of the warden service’s actions, or lack thereof: It unanimously backed a motion by board member and Maine Public Broadcasting radio reporter A.J. Higgins to put the matter on the agenda for next month’s meeting July 20.

While the Right to Know Advisory Committee doesn’t have investigatory powers or the authority to subpoena witnesses, it can recommend new legislation or changes to existing law. And, just as importantly in this case, the committee can keep the spotlight on the warden service’s resistance to legitimate public records requests. Serious questions about how the service uses its authority have been raised but not answered, and bringing at least part of the matter before an advisory panel is a step in the right direction.

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