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The Judiciary Committee this week is working on LD 1805, a proposal to create a new exception in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act to permit the governor – the current and all future governors – to withhold “working papers, reports and memoranda” from public scrutiny.
It’s an exception that, if enacted, will effectively slam the door on public access to the governor’s office.
It’s a bad idea and defies every moment of Mainers’ proud history to preserve and protect public access to, and interaction with, our government.
The bill, as it stands, would shield “proposed legislation and reports until publicly distributed and records, working papers, drafts and interoffice and intraoffice memoranda used or maintained by the governor or any employee of the Governor’s Office to prepare proposed legislation or reports for consideration by the Legislature or any of its committees during the legislation session,” etc.
In short, that means that everything that goes into legislative proposals originating in the governor’s office would be secret, including any information about the personal and political influences that may have triggered these proposals.
It’s an exception that would, if enacted, legalize cronyism.
In making the pitch for support of this exception during last week’s public hearing, Michael Cianchette, deputy counsel to Gov. Paul LePage, argued that the governor “wants the same exception the Legislature has ‘blessed’ itself with.”
He also pointed out that the judicial branch is not subject to FOAA and, therefore, any working papers or reports developed to assist in rendering court decisions are not accessible to the public.
“We support equity among the branches,” Cianchette said.
But it’s hard to argue equity when the branches – while balanced – are not equal. The judicial and legislative branches are loaded with layers of people and processes, with decisions made by consensus in public hearings and by rule of law documented in public records.
The executive branch, by definition, “has sole authority and responsibility for the daily administration of the state.”
We place tremendous power in the governor, and maintaining accountability for that power is our absolute right as citizens.
LD 1805 guts that accountability.
Cianchette was the only person who spoke before the committee in favor of this bill, saying that the governor has concerns about public inspection of working papers and reports used in the decision-making process, worried that FOAA could be used by political foes to interfere with the governor’s policy-making process.
To which independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth remarked that the proposal “seems more like a political decision, not a substantive decision.”
The most interesting part of this push to shield working papers – and the most perplexing – is that LePage and his staff have been, to date, open and responsive to document requests. That’s not just us saying so, it’s been said by people of different political persuasions pushing many different agendas.
True to his campaign pledge to support transparency in government, LePage has proved, time and again, his intention and ability to be open.
So, why does this governor want to create a shield that he has not himself deployed?
Let’s remember: This legislation will not be limited to LePage’s time in office. It will be in place for every governor who comes ever after.
So, knowing this is a political move, let’s look at the politics.
Right now, the Democrats want to monitor the influence the Maine Heritage Policy Center and other conservative entities have on the current governor’s administration. As they should.
If, after LePage’s tenure in office, a Democrat is elected to office, the Republicans will certainly want to monitor the influence any number of liberal organizations may have on that administration. As they should.
LD 1805 will block that access and we’ll all be standing in the dark, powerless against the person holding the most powerful position in state government.
We will all be denied access to how policy decisions are developed and who influences those decisions.
We cannot, if we care even slightly about access to government, permit that to happen.
If we do, we are abdicating our civic responsibility to self-government.
We elect our governors to represent us. Not rule us.
Even if Gov. Paul LePage were not trying to keep the working papers of his office beyond the eyes of the public, this would be a good time for every Mainer to become familiar with the state’s Freedom of Access Act.
In fact, there may be no better time than at the start of an election year, when we’ll be choosing not only a president, but a U.S. senator, U.S. representatives, state legislators and many local officials.
Whether you’re a journalist whose job is to cover the candidates, or an average citizen with an interest in politics who would like to make more informed choices about the candidates for public office, Maine’s FOAA and other right-to-know tools can be indispensable for vetting candidates’ claims and researching their backgrounds and qualifications.
But freedom of information laws, like many power tools, can be hard to use. They tend to work better after you’re shown how to use them by a pro. Thanks to a coalition of right-to-know advocates, several pros will be in Portland next week to share their tips, tricks and advice on the use of investigative techniques and FOI laws for researching candidates.
“Shining Light on our Elections” is a free, public workshop to be presented by the New England First Amendment Coalition, Maine Association of Broadcasters, Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and Maine Press Association.
The participating experts will include Mark Horvit, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors; attorney Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty in Portland, counsel to the Maine Press Association and board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition; Irwin Gratz, “Morning Edition” producer on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists; Anthony Ronzio, director of new media at Sun Media Group, the parent company of The Forecaster and the Sun Journal in Lewiston, and Andrew Marsters, journalism lecturer at the University of New Hampshire and a NEFAC board member.
If you want to know how to use freedom of information laws and other tools to learn more about the people seeking your votes, attend the workshop from 9:30 a.m to 12:30 p.m. on Friday, March 9, in Rooms 109-110 of the Abromson Community Education Center at the University of Southern Maine, 88 Bedford St., Portland.
It is your right to know.