Maine’s Freedom of Access Act isn’t really a law – it’s more of a suggestion.

While the statute says governments must fulfill requests for public records in a timely manner, so that citizens can be informed in real time of what is being done in their name and on their dime, it just isn’t built to deal with officials who have no interest in keeping the public informed.

If others have exploited this law before, the LePage administration has elevated it to an art form. In the latest example of opaque governance, Gov. LePage’s office has ignored for 11 months requests by the Portland Press Herald for receipts that would show how the governor is spending public money when he travels.

The request appears to have made the rounds. An attorney in the governor’s office made the initial reply, but at some point the request was forwarded to another employee in the office. When reached nine months after the initial request, that employee said he didn’t have access to the governor’s travel records, and referred a reporter to a spokesman for the Department of Administration and Financial Affairs. When contacted later, the spokesman said he had never heard of the request.

Meanwhile, Maine State Police, which conducts security for the governor when he travels, fulfilled a similar request in 22 days.

Such flouting of the open records law is nothing new for the administration, which has regularly attempted to subvert the open records law in their internal communications and in their processing of requests for information.

Maine law makes that easy – it says only that requests should be fulfilled within a “reasonable” time, without defining what that means, or providing much in the way of recourse short of a lawsuit.

Such a long and costly process, however, undercuts the intent of the open records law, which is meant to allow citizens to track public actions while they are happening. The media and others should be able to confirm information offered by the governor when he gives it without context or attribution during his “town halls” or radio appearances. They should be able to see who he is meeting with and why. They should be able to tell how he is spending public money.

Not next year, not in six months, but now, as it is occurring.

It is that sort of information, provided by state police, that shows LePage spent thousands of dollars at hotels connected to President Trump, raising questions about whether the president is inappropriately mixing government and his personal business. A records request also allowed the Kennebec Journal to detail how a failed fire sprinkler system at a grade school went unheeded for almost six years.

Officials who respect open government would make public information as public as possible. They would place some of it online automatically as a matter of course. The rest they would turn over when asked, “in a reasonable time,” as state law says.

Those who don’t, though, need hard deadlines and strict penalties. They need more than a law that assumes everyone will act in the public interest.

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