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Topsham selectman to turn over documents; calls colleague's request a 'fishing expedition'

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Topsham selectman to turn over documents; calls colleague's request a 'fishing expedition'

TOPSHAM — Selectman Sandra Consolini on Tuesday said she will fully comply with a request for documents sought by Selectman Jim Trusiani under Maine's Freedom of Access Act.

But she also called his action a "fishing expedition" and said "it's sad that he went through with (this)."

Consolini read Trusiani's formal request during the board's Dec. 3 meeting, and said she would turn over the information at the board's next meeting on Dec. 17.

While the Freedom of Information Act allows only five business days for a response, Trusiani said he would give her 15.

"Please be advised that I am prepared to pursue whatever legal remedy necessary to obtain access to the requested records," he wrote in the letter. "I would note willful violation of the open records can result in a fine of up to $500 and imposition of the court costs."

Trusiani requested "all town of Topsham documents, written documents, records, any and all e-mails sent or received on any computers" as they relate to the Bay Park drainage issue, tax increment financing, special local elections, town business communication from or to former Selectman Michelle Derr and all other elected officials from other municipalities, as well as budget and finance information.

Trusiani also called for correspondence related to "Codes and Planning Ordinance or possible violation of ordinance" concerning open field recycling facilities, car dealers/brokers, commercial property owners and plant operators.

Trusiani's action followed discussion at recent meetings about correspondence between Consolini and members of the public on several issues. Among them was the barring or conditional allowance of any future large-scale, open-field recycling facilities in Topsham, a discussion item Consolini introduced at the board's Oct. 15 meeting after a fire at the Grimmel Industries metal recycling business.

He said Tuesday that one reason he submitted the request is that Consolini ran for office on a platform of encouraging a transparent form of government, and that he expects her to uphold transparency with regard to correspondence she has had about town business, in order to help the board make decisions on those matters.

"If she's going to run on that platform, she needs to live by that platform," Trusiani said, adding that "at no time have I made this personal."

Consolini said she waited to comply until she received a written request because "nobody is going to freely hand over anything just because somebody verbally said ‘hey, I want your documents.' You do have to wait for the letter, so it can explain what they want."

She called Trusiani's action "a fishing expedition" prompted largely because "I ask a lot of questions, I make a lot of observations. And instead of sweeping it under the rug, I'm not that kind of person. That's what I meant by ‘open and transparent government.'" 

Consolini called the Freedom of Access Act "a great act (and) a great law, to give citizens the chance to get public documents, public records, and everything like that, and I know that correspondence to and from me to a citizen is public information because I am a selectman; I am a public official. But I never thought that a fellow selectman would do this, when 90 percent of the correspondence is (copied) to that individual selectman anyway."

But she also complained about having to expose information citizens may have believed would remain private. "There's no disclaimer on the (board's) Web site saying that if you make contact with your selectman, it's public information," she said.

Maine's Freedom of Access Act doesn't require such a disclaimer. But it does regard e-mail to or from government officials as public records available for inspection or copying by any member of the public. The act applies whether the communication is between the elected official and another office holder, or between the official and a private citizen.  

Consolini suggested a private citizen's name should not be made public because they've asked a question of a selectman.

"That's not right," she said. "This is setting a very bad precedent, and it's going to stop a lot of people, the people that won't get up at Town Meeting or won't get up in front of the selectmen at the podium ... from contacting their elected official."

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.