In Maine, the administration of Gov. Paul LePage has enacted a ban on state employees’ use of text messaging, instant messaging and the use of personal email accounts to conduct state business.
The directive is an effort to better comply with the Maine Freedom of Access Act, which requires all communications related to state business to be stored as state records and open to public inspection, unless the record falls into a particular exemption category.
Employees' use of texting as a means to circumvent public records laws was revealed on March 14, when a former employee of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Sharon Leahy-Lind, detailed to the legislature’s Government Oversight Committee the agency’s alleged noncompliance with the public records act. Leahy-Lind testified that she was encouraged to use texting as a means of communication about state business because those messages were harder to access under public records laws.
“Any record, regardless of the form in which it is maintained by an agency or official, can be a public record,” Brenda Kielty, the state’s public access ombudsman, told the Portland Press Herald, confirming that text messages would be considered public, at least in theory. The difficulty with text messages is that they are not stored on state servers, and are therefore often out of reach in practice.
The new policy can be seen as a step forward for the LePage administration. The governor ran in 2010 on a platform that promised to “fight for stronger laws to protect and expand Maine citizens’ right to access information from state and local government,” according to his website, but quickly drew criticism for not living up to that promise.
Within months of being sworn in as governor, LePage referred to those seeking public records as “a form of internal terrorism,” according to the Kennebec Journal, and was criticized for refusing to release his travel records.
Three years later, the LePage administration’s commitment to transparency is subject to debate. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group praised the administration for launching an online tool that explains how the state uses taxpayer money, as well as for enacting a law expanding financial disclosures from public officials.
However, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington included LePage on its list of worst governors in 2013, pointing to failed attempts to exempt working papers, memoranda, and legislative proposals from the public records law.