Maine's public access ombudsman expects to be busy
FREEPORT — Public access and freedom of information advocates have long been calling for the appointment of an official to help the public navigate Maine's freedom of access laws.
They got their wish in the last legislative session when two bills passed, fully funding the state's first public access ombudsman, with $88,000 in annual salary and benefits. Maine became the sixth state to create a public access ombudsman.
Attorney General William Schneider made the appointment in early September, selecting his public information officer, Freeport resident Brenda Kielty. She will work in both capacities in the attorney general's office until the PIO position is filled.
Kielty, an attorney, mediator and Regional School Unit 5 board member, said she believes freedom of access is fundamental to a democratic society and she will lean to the side of public access, as directed by the law.
"It's the people's business," she said Saturday during a round table discussion with reporters and editors at the Maine Press Association's fall conference at the Hilton Garden Inn in Freeport. "If you cannot get that information, then we are not meeting our common goal."
Three characteristics outline the new role for Kielty: independence, impartiality and a credible review process.
"Without those three things ... it can really undo the effectiveness of the position," she said.
Mal Leary, editor of Capitol News Service, said he has fought for the ombudsman position since the first study on freedom of access in Maine was commissioned in 2002. He is optimistic about the position's future impact.
"The real thrust of the position is to have somebody in government who can run interference for the average citizen," Leary said, noting that now the law is used most regularly by journalists and lawyers. "There's no one there to really just help the average Joe find something."
Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a member of the state's Right to Know Advisory Committee, said the office should also help resolve disputes and hopes it will help find alternatives to expensive litigation.
One of the challenges Leary sees for Kielty is her shift from public information officer to a public access ombudsman.
"She has to change from being an AG staff who responds to records, to an ombudsman who advocates for records," Leary said. "It's a tough thing for her to do because she may have to work against her colleagues, who may not want something released. I'm waiting to see how she handles that situation,"
Kielty said she doesn't see the difficulty, and her previous work experience as a mediator and as a public information officer make her well-equipped to resolve public access disputes.
"The benefit to me is that as a public information officer I've had the opportunity to see (Freedom of Access Act) questions from the point of view of an agency, and from the press and the public," she said.
Although Kielty was appointed by the attorney general and continues to work in that office, she said the ombudsman's office will be completely independent.
"I'm like another animal that's not like anybody else. I'm going to work extremely hard to maintain impartiality and not be jeopardized," she said. "Maybe some other PIO might not be able to make the shift, but I don't think it's going to be different at all. It's been perfect training."
The position was originally created by the Legislature in 2007, but was unfunded until earlier this year when two bills, one from the Legislature and one from the governor, appropriated funding.
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, was a major advocate and supported the legislation to create the position.
Rosen said he sees the position playing an important role in mediating public access disputes and hopes the new ombudsman will save taxpayers money by reducing litigation costs.
"It's certainly my hope and expectation that the position will be useful and will be helpful for both government and anyone that's submitting a request for information," Rosen said. "It will make the statute work better and will help resolve things to end up with a more satisfactory solution."
According to the statute, the job has several responsibilities, including mediating disputes over public access between citizens and government; educating the public about public access laws and procedures; response to informal inquires by the public and public agencies; issuing advisory opinions about interpretation of public access laws, and recommending how to improve access to public records and proceedings.
The ombudsman will also field complaints and questions from any state or municipal agency, including police departments.
Judy Meyer, managing editor/days at the Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston, said filling the ombudsman position is an exciting development. She said she hopes it will "streamline" the public records request process and give citizens better access to their government.
"What's happening now is that we are getting calls from citizens asking us to intervene," said Meyer, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a member of the Right to Know Advisory Committee. "The people who figure out to call us is one group, and then there's the other ones who will just be disenfranchised. Now they'll have Brenda."
One of the difficulties Kielty will face in her new position, Meyer said, is not only keeping up with the evolution of the law, which has changed significantly in the last decade, but also knowing the more than 300 exemptions.
"(The Freedom of Access Act) is not a static thing she can learn and be done learning," Meyer said. "She seems dedicated to learning this really quickly. I'm looking forward to seeing her work with Maine people."
In addition to fielding access questions from agencies and the public, the Legislature also intends for the ombudsman to collect data on public access, such as the number of requests and complaints filed, and which groups filed them.
This information must be in available in an annual report submitted by the ombudsman to the Legislature no later than March 15, according to the statute.
As a one-woman show, still building the foundations of the new office, Kielty will no doubt be busy. But she said she prefers it that way.
"It really is about being available," Kielty said. "I do expect my phone will be ringing."