If you’re an advocate for freedom of information and Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, it was a pull-your-hair-out kind of week.
In Brunswick, town councilors and the town manager held an unannounced, private meeting with representatives of the Brunswick West neighborhood group. Then in Freeport, town councilors had to be reminded that their personal email accounts are not immune to FOAA requests. And finally, in Scarborough, the School Board was poised to increase public information document fees that – guess what? – already exceed the legal limit.
What the heck is going on? Unfortunately, it’s the same old thing: the people we trust to honor the public’s right to know are either ignorant of state law, or choose to dwell in its gray areas, when it comes to providing public information.
Maine’s FOAA is clear: a gathering where three or more members of an elected government body, like a town council, convene to discuss municipal business is (with only specific exceptions) a meeting that must have advance public notice and must be open to the public.
But that didn’t happen Nov. 28 in Brunswick, where Town Council Chairwoman Joanne King, three other councilors and Town Manager Gary Brown met privately and without public notice with the board of Brunswick West. Their topic was the neighborhood group’s continuing opposition to an Amtrak Downeaster layover facility.
After The Forecaster’s Emily Guerin learned who attended the meeting, councilors tried to spin the private meeting the best way they could. It was a Brunswick West meeting, they said, not a council meeting. Or they were there only to listen, not discuss.
Those arguments fail the straight-face test.
The councilors were there because the issue is one that has been front and center in Brunswick for several months, and because they hoped – as Brown later said – to establish a “dialog” with the angry residents. In fact, Councilor Debbie Atwood said she left the meeting when the residents refused to hear what she had to say.
A skeptic might suggest that, like shoppers with cartloads of groceries who can’t count past 12 at the express checkout, Brunswick’s town councilors need a lesson in arithmetic. We hope not, because that would suggest they truly were winking at the law. What they really need is a refresher course in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
Freeport’s town councilors got just that on Nov. 29, when their lawyer urged them to use the town email system instead of their own, private accounts, when they conduct town business. Apparently, some of them may still mistakenly believe their private emails are safe from FOAA requests.
Keeping all electronic records on a town server will make things easier not only for members of the press and public who request records, but for the councilors and town employees who will eventually be asked to produce the records. It will also reduce the time and expense required to comply with public information record requests.
Which brings us to Scarborough, where the School Board on Dec. 1 was prepared to enact fees as high as $50 an hour for School Department compliance with records requests – until The Forecaster’s Mario Moretto pointed out that state law caps those charges at $10 per hour. Not only that, it turned out the town’s existing fees already exceed the statutory limit.
To its credit, the board removed the item from its agenda and was expected to consult an attorney. But there shouldn’t be much consultation needed: Scarborough’s fee structure, which now varies from $10 an hour to $30 an hour, should quickly be revised and brought in line with the FOAA. Although the School Department said it has never charged anyone the inflated fees, refunds should be provided to people who can produce receipts that show they were overcharged for public documents.
From one end of The Forecaster’s coverage area to the other, last week proved there’s still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to local government compliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Act – and plenty of need for vigilance by the public and the press.