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Governor signs law to improve police responses on record access

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Governor signs law to improve police responses on record access

  • A statewide audit of government compliance with the Freedom of Access Law triggered a new law directed at police compliance with open records mandates.

May 21, 2003 — Gov. John Baldacci signed legislation May 16 aimed to improve law enforcement compliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Law.

The legislation was introduced in response to a statewide public records audit conducted in November 2002 by the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. The audit found that police departments responded inconsistently when it came to compliance with the FOA law.

The new law requires that chief administrators from each municipality, county and state law enforcement agency certify that it has a written policy on how to deal with open records requests and that annual certification must be provided by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. The law also requires that a person from each public agency be trained to respond to requests.

In its audit findings released Jan.1, the Maine FOI Coalition recommended that “lawmakers must address the cost of reproduction of public documents, and develop standards for what is fair and reasonable” and that “the Maine Chiefs of Police Association must make greater efforts to provide training and ensure that members abide by Maine’s Freedom of Access law.”

To conduct the survey, more than 100 volunteer auditors, including members of the press and the public, traveled to 310 offices throughout the state on Nov. 19 to request access to documents that are public under Maine statute.

No two [police departments] responded in the same way,” said Judy Meyer, vice president of the Maine FOI Coalition. “There was clearly no uniform response to what should be an ordinary request for public information. To have training and a written policy would guarantee that someone in the department at least reads the law once a year and understands how the department should respond to any member of the public.”

Meyer, who is editorial page editor for the Sun-Journal in Lewiston, called the reaction to the audit “a demonstration of how Maine people react. They saw evidence of a problem. They were bothered by it. And they fixed it.”

Another FOA bill, awaiting Senate approval, would create a 16-member panel to examine compliance by police, town, city and school officials with the FOA law. The panel also would examine the results of the public records audit as well as current exemptions to the law.

“It would be a thorough dusting off of FOA,” Meyer said.

(LD 249, LD 1079) JL

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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