Thursday, July 6, 2006

Fighting for freedom: You are the key to government openness

Published in the Portland Phoenix

I carry a copy of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act in my pocket. It’s not only useful as a reference when dealing with government officials who want to hold on to information I or my newspaper would rather they set free, but it’s an excellent reminder of how to approach government officials: with the attitude that they work for us, that their records are our records, and that their business is our business.

A statewide study four years ago and a follow-up in May, whose results were released this week, show how far Maine officials are from remembering who employs them. The studies highlight a serious threat to our democracy: Maine residents are being denied access to important information about our government’s actions, particularly at the local level — information we have the legal right to inspect.
Maine’s Freedom of Access Law is clear and specific when it says you and I have the right to see any piece of paper, any computer file, any sheet of microfilm in the custody of a public official. We have the right to see any videotape, listen to any audio recording, read any e-mail on office computers. It is a simple principle: we own the buildings and pay the workers, so everything inside is ours, too.
Any time you approach a public office, or a public official, you must keep that in mind. Don't walk away empty-handed if an official won't show you the information you want. Demand to be shown the text of the law allowing that information to be kept secret. And don’t walk away unless you personally agree, upon reading the law yourself, that the information is legally secret.
The Freedom of Access Act has your back. It says very clearly at its outset, “public proceedings exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the Legislature that ... actions be taken openly and that ... records ... be open to public inspection.”
You do not have to be a town resident, a Maine resident, or even a US citizen. You do not have to give your name, show ID, name your employer, say why you want the information, or give out any information at all about yourself.
We in Maine now have strong proof that public employees are defying the intent of the Legislature. This is particularly a problem at the local-government level, where, ironically, the officials denying us access to public records are the same folks whose salaries we pay with our property taxes. Nobody argues that “local control” should mean “local secrecy,” but in some towns that’s what we’re getting, even though there is no cost involved in showing a person a piece of paper that already exists on a desk or shelf somewhere.
In 2002, I helped with a Maine Freedom of Information Coalition public-records audit that found not even six in 10 government offices surveyed complied when approached by a member of the public seeking a record that was certainly public (according to lawyers who helped plan the audit). And nearly two-thirds of public employees who allowed access to the documents broke the law in other ways, by asking for ID or a reason the person wanted the information.
Statewide, the results were so bad that the Maine Legislature created a committee to study the 500-plus exemptions in Maine laws that permit public officials to keep information from the public, and to review any future proposals of laws that would allow government records to be kept secret.
This year, a follow-up audit to test compliance — after the law changes, the missives from organizations intended to help governments do their jobs better, and even after a warning e-mail from one town manager to all the others around the state that an audit was in progress May 3 — found more than one-third of public officials audited still broke the law by denying access. And more than half of the offices that did allow inspection of public documents illegally asked for either a reason the auditor wanted the information, or the auditor’s ID, and some did both.
Me? On audit day this year, I was charged $12.50 just to look at a public document in Old Orchard Beach, in what the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition is highlighting as one of the most serious transgressions of the day. On any other day, I would have refused, pulled out my copy of the law, and argued about it. That day, though, the point of the audit was to find out how these sorts of requests were handled. I paid in cash, didn’t give my name, and got a receipt to prove the law had been broken.