Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Audit shows problems with public access

Published in the Current and the American Journal

As the result of a statewide freedom of information audit spearheaded by the state’s press association, two bills designed to ensure that public records and documents are actually available to members of the public have been introduced in the Legislature.

Staff members of the Current and American Journal newspapers participated in the Nov. 19 survey, along with over 100 other volunteers from newspapers, universities and citizens’ groups.

The outcome is that the Maine Press Association and the Maine Daily Newspaper Publishers Association have filed a request for legislators, media representatives and local and state government representatives to study compliance with the state’s Freedom of Access Act and report back to the Legislature at the end of the year. It also calls for a review of the law itself and recommendations on ways to improve it.

The second bill would require police departments to adopt written policies on compliance with the state’s right-to-know laws. The Maine Criminal Justice Academy would have to establish minimum standards for public
information policies. The bill would require police officials to train personnel about right-to-know laws and assess fines for those officials who failed to comply with them.

In the Nov. 19 statewide survey, the volunteer auditors visited 156 municipal offices, 75 police stations and 79 school administrative offices to request specific documents that are public under state statute.

Also, requests by mail for copies of the minutes of the most recent town council meetings were made for each of the 489 villages, towns and cities in the state. A one-dollar bill was included in the request, to defray copying and mailing costs.

According to a statement by the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, which coordinated the effort, “the response of public officials was mixed.” Many auditors were asked to produce identification, identify their employers or provide reasons for their requests. Maine law does not require people to identify themselves, their employers or explain why they want to view public documents.

Auditors asked to view police logs, the superintendent’s contract and expense reports for the town’s highest elected official.

Police results
Police departments in Cape Elizabeth, Gorham, Scarborough, South Portland, Westbrook and Windham were all audited.

South Portland did not allow the auditor to view the log, and said in her comments, “(they) said they don’t give it out, that some of the info is not public knowledge. I asked for a blacked-out version, couldn’t get it.” She was also asked for a reason for her request.

The auditor of Scarborough’s police department was unable to view the log because a computer malfunction meant the system was inaccessible. He was asked for identification, the name of his employer and a reason for his request.

Cape Elizabeth allowed an auditor to view the report, after asking for identification and a reason, and asking her to fill out paperwork. The person who made the request said on her comment form, “waited about 45 minutes for chief to redact the log. He said he removed names so people would not be discouraged from calling police.”

Westbrook allowed an auditor to view the log, but asked for the auditor’s employer and a reason for her request.

Windham allowed viewing of the log, but asked for identification, the name of the auditor’s employer and a reason for her request.

Gorham allowed viewing of the log, which did not include summonses or arrests, and asked for a reason but did not require one.

Of 75 police departments visited statewide, 33 percent denied access to police logs outright. Of the 67 percent that complied, 45 percent required auditors to identify themselves, 39 percent required auditors to name their employers and 48 percent required justification for access. In a small number of cases, members of the public were denied access to police records because they were not members of the media.

The question also arose of what a police log is.

Gorham’s records were a list of complaints and calls handled by officers, but did not include information on whether arrests or summonses were made, or the names of people arrested or summonsed.

The auditor in Cape Elizabeth was given access to the department’s call record, a document not normally made available in the department’s public log.

School and town results
School offices in Cape Elizabeth, Gorham, Scarborough, South Portland, Westbrook and Windham were asked for copies of the superintendent’s contract.

Cape Elizabeth allowed an auditor to view the document, but the person handling the request asked for a reason and had to ask a coworker to make sure the document was public. When told that it was, the person “gave it to me with no trouble,” the auditor reported.

Gorham allowed access without any questions. Scarborough, South Portland and Windham did allow access, but asked for identification, a reason, an employer’s name or all three.

Westbrook did not allow an auditor to view the document, asked for identification and suggested the auditor return to see if it would be available later.

Town offices in Cape Elizabeth, Gorham, Scarborough, South Portland, Standish, Westbrook and Windham were also asked for access to expense reports for the towns’ highest elected official.

Scarborough, Gorham and Standish would have allowed access but no such information exists. Standish offers councilors $10 per meeting, to cover travel and expenses, but as of Oct. 31, 2002, no members of the present council had even filed to request that stipend.

Westbrook asked for an ID and a reason, and did not have any applicable documents ready to hand. “Michelle (mayor’s secretary) said she’d pull something together,” the auditor wrote. Michelle “didn’t have anything easily accessible, and promised to call tomorrow.”

Windham denied access because the form was “waiting to be approved,” the auditor was told. The auditor was also asked for ID, an employer and a reason for wanting to see the document.

Cape Elizabeth allowed access, with a “very cooperative” person helping the auditor.

South Portland also allowed access, after an office worker asked a co-worker for the proper procedure.

All of the towns, Cape Elizabeth, Gorham, Scarborough, South Portland, Standish, Westbrook and Windham, sent the most recent council meeting minutes, as requested by mail. Some also returned the $1 and several post minutes on their town web sites.

Statewide results
The Maine School Management Association learned of the audit before Nov. 19 and sent an e-mail to superintendents advising them to comply with auditors’ requests.

But of 79 school departments visited, only 67 percent permitted access to the superintendent’s contract.

Of those, 50 percent asked auditors for ID, 13 percent asked for the auditor’s employer’s name and 37 percent asked auditors for a reason they wanted to view the document. In about 10 percent of offices, workers had to ask a supervisor if the contract was a public document, and in a few cases the document was locked away and not accessible to office staff.

Of 156 visited municipal offices, only 18 percent of them had the expense report on file. Nearly half of the towns, 47 percent, do not reimburse elected officials for expenses.

As for the mailed requests for minutes to 489 towns, 77.7 percent sent the documents as requested; 16.8 percent “ignored the request,” the MFOIC report said. Some towns sent the documents but they arrived after a deadline requested in the letter.