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Public has right to know about projects like East-West highway in Maine

rachelhealyBy Rachel Healy, communications director, ACLU of Maine

In March, the ACLU of Maine testified before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee in favor of a bill to restore the public’s right to know about transportation projects that are proposed as public-private partnerships.

Under current law, materials used or submitted in connection with such a proposal are kept secret. LD 721, “An Act To Provide Transparency in Public-Private Partnerships for Transportation Projects,” would make those materials public.

Questions about the need for such secrecy are being debated now in relation to the proposed 220-mile east-west toll highway that would be built across rural Maine with an estimated $2 billion in private investments and become a link between southwestern New Brunswick and southern Quebec.

With limited exceptions, Maine’s Freedom of Access Act treats all records in the hands of any governmental entity as public records. We believe the current exception for public-private transportation projects is over broad. The exception is not narrowly tailored to protect confidential business information, trade secrets, or other specific types of information. Instead, it shields all information and activities relating to these large projects.

The public is kept virtually in the dark until the Department of Transportation has made a decision to accept the project and brings it to the legislature for final approval.

The current policy completely contradicts and upsets the careful balance between privacy and transparency struck by Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, and threatens the public’s right to know what the government is up to. Decisions about whom the government enters into partnership with and how officials spend our taxpayer money are certainly matters of public importance.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine joined us in testifying in favor of the bill. Of particular interest to some advocates, the bill could give the public access to records and plans concerning the proposed east-west highway project, which would involve both private and public funding.

While the ACLU doesn’t take a position one way or another on the proposed corridor, we recognize that it is certainly a matter of public interest and, as such, Mainers have a right to more information about it.

The public’s right to know is essential to democracy, and it is the only way we can hold our government accountable. Too much secrecy paves the way for bad decisions. We will be watching closely to see what happens with this bill.