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Maine improves records law, creates access ombudsman

By Mal Leary, Capitol News Service

In a year when Maine Gov. Paul LePage sought a significant erosion of the state access law by getting his working papers exempted, open government advocates not only convinced lawmakers to strengthen the law, they funded a full time public access ombudsman in the Attorney General’s office.

“The public’s right to know about the activities of government is a cornerstone of democracy,” said Maine Attorney General Bill Schneider. “We look forward to having the means to provide more effective information and assistance to citizens about using the law.”

He said the responsibilities of the Public Access Ombudsman include responding to informal inquiries about Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, working to resolve complaints, preparing educational materials about the law in collaboration with the Right to Know Advisory Committee, and making recommendations about improving access to public records and proceedings.

Gov. LePage supported a half-time position in his budget, but the legislature’s Appropriations Committee provided the additional funds to make it a full time position under the leadership of Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the committee co-chairman. He also sponsored a measure that significantly strengthened current law and that along with his long standing support for open government led the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition to give him its 2012 Maine Sunshine Award.

“Senator Rosen did an outstanding job in this legislative biennium of sponsoring and shepherding an important piece of right-to-know legislation, LD 1465,” said Suzanne Goucher, President of the Maine Association of Broadcasters and President of the Coalition.  “Among other provisions, this bill establishes that every unit of government in Maine must designate a Public Access Officer to assist the public in accessing government documents and records.”

The improved law also requires a “good faith” estimate of how long it will take to fulfill a request, and if the information is in electronic form, the requestor can specify it be provided in that form.

All government agencies must “consider” if any computer program they buy will maximize access to public records and the ability to export data easily.

The MFOIC Sunshine Award is intended to honor citizens, journalists, media organizations, or community groups that have championed, protected, and promoted public access to government meetings, public records, and court proceedings, or otherwise promoted the public’s right to know and to publish, broadcast, and speak freely about issues of public concern.

This post first appeared in the September edition of the NEFAC Report. Sign up for the monthly report here. 

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