Recent changes in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act have funded an ombudsman position and improved access to public records under the law.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Richard Rosen and signed into law last week by Gov. Paul LePage, is "a step forward" in the public's ability to access records in a system previously marked by confusion and poor organization, media advocates said.
In addition to creating the ombudsman position, the reforms make clear that government agencies should respond to requests within five days, must state the reason for any denied requests and must provide records in electronic form if possible. The legislation also states that agencies may charge up to $15 per hour — up from $10 an hour — after the first hour of compiling the public records on request.
“Education is the solution to commonplace problems, and the ombudsman would ensure officials are educated about their responsibilities,” Maine media attorney Sigmund Schutz said in an interview today. “Before, the attorney general’s office would handle public records issues on the fly, so an ombudsman will provide a consistent response to those issues."
Rosen said the ombudsman position was created in 2007 but had not been filled because there was no funding. More than a dozen states have active ombudsmen who help the public with open records requests. Rosen said the Attorney General’s office should fill the position soon.
Maine's public access ombudsman will be an informational resource for citizens but will not have the power to compel disclosure, instead working to resolve conflicts before actions go to court.
In addition to the ombudsman, all Maine government entities will be required to appoint an existing staff member, who is familiar with public access law, to help facilitate public records requests.
“Over 30 cosponsors and organizations that spanned across the political spectrum gave their support to the bill,” Rosen said. “This isn’t about any ideology or political party. The function of the government is to support open access, and that’s a nonpartisan issue.”
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