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Governor approves expansive public access reform bill

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    News Media Update         MAINE         Freedom of Information    

Governor approves expansive public access reform bill

  • Maine broadened its Freedom of Access laws to improve cost and time of filing open records requests, and restricted exceptions to public disclosure.

May 19, 2004 — Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill last week that will make it easier to obtain public records. The Maine Press Association called it the “broadest package of public access reforms in the 45-year history of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.”

The most significant change to the law was the addition of a review process for exceptions to public disclosure, said Judy Meyer, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. The exceptions in question fall under the Maine Freedom of Access Act’s general exemption for records otherwise designated confidential by statute.

Meyer, editorial page editor of the Lewiston Sun-Journal , served on a 16-person committee –including business leaders, area residents and government officials — charged with studying compliance with the state’s Freedom of Access laws.

Prior to the new bill, signed May 11, there was no re-evaluation of laws creating exceptions, which kept accumulating in numbers. Meyer said the committee at one point counted up to 500 exceptions on the books. The new law set out nine criteria to evaluate exceptions, and it institutionalizes an annual review of them. It also requires the need for the exceptions to be weighed against the public’s interest.

The law states that agencies must explain to requesters who are denied records the exemption(s) on which their denial was based. In some cases, that means citing an actual statute. This clarification, Meyer said, can make appeals easier.

The legislation was partially in response to a statewide public records audit conducted in November 2002 by the Maine coalition. The audit’s findings showed a disparity in protocol among agencies, and general noncompliance with the access laws. For example, auditors frequently had to present identification, identify their employers and/or provide reasons for their requests, none of which is required by state law.

The new legislation requires agencies to respond to public records requests within a “reasonable” time and at a “reasonable” cost. The law previously included no time or cost limits. Copying costs ranged from 15 cents to $6 per page, the coalition reported in the audit published in January 2003. The new law does not define what constitutes “reasonable.”

The Maine Press Association and the Maine Daily Newspaper Publishers Association played a leading role in the creation of the bill.

“It was a long haul that, at times, required real patience on our part, but I believe that the final product was well worth the wait,” Michael Mahoney, the associations’ representative in the legislature, said in a publicly released statement.

Government entities may still charge a fee to cover the actual cost of searching for and compiling requested documents, but it can no longer exceed $10 per hour after the first hour of staff time.

Agencies must also provide the requester an estimate of total time and costs. If the estimate of the total cost exceeds $20, the agency or official must inform the requester before proceeding.

For estimates more than $100, the agency or official may require a requester to pay all or part of the estimated cost before continuing. The fee may be waived if the requester cannot afford to pay, or if the information sought is in the public interest.

The new law empowers the Committee To Study Compliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Laws to examine how well state and local government entities are enforcing FOI laws, and to provide a recommendation as to whether the personal home contact information of public employees should be subject to disclosure. Currently, such information is only available regarding public school personnel.

AV

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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