By Jim Campbell
Maine has had a strong Freedom of Access Act for over 20 years. Although there are exceptions to the Act, as a general principle the FOAA provides that “public proceedings exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business.”
Under FOAA, actions of the legislature should “be taken openly and . . . the records of their actions [should] be open to public inspection and their deliberations be conducted openly.” The statute also rejects the use of “clandestine meetings, conferences or meetings held on private property without proper notice and ample opportunity for attendance by the public . . .”
Unfortunately, the spirit and sometimes the letter of this law are not always observed in practice. In recent years, there has been some very egregious non-compliance with the law both by the executive and legislative branches of state government.
For example, meetings of committees appointed by the governor with published dates and agendas have been labeled “getting to know each other” gatherings from which the public and reporters are excluded, when in fact they are public meetings covered by FOAA. Rather than have the committees meet in public, the governor essentially abandoned the effort altogether.
In another example, the current state budget was negotiated by four legislative leaders behind closed doors after they yanked the budget from the control of the Appropriations Committee which is charged by legislative rules to submit a budget. The general public had no chance to read and comment on the final budget and neither did most rank and file legislators before they had to vote on adopting it. The violation of the spirit and letter of FOAA was so flagrant in this case that one member of the Right to Know Advisory Committee, which reviews and advises the Judiciary Committee on exceptions to the FOAA, resigned in protest.
Unfortunately, these are not the only examples of Maine state government officials ignoring or trying to skirt the open access requirements of the law and of trying to conduct the people’s business behind closed doors.
Against this backdrop, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition repeated an effort it made in some earlier elections. MFOIC asked all candidates for the state legislature to sign a pledge supporting open government. All 365 legislative candidates were mailed the following pledge and asked whether they would be willing to commit to it.
“As a candidate for the Maine Legislature in 2016, I endorse the purpose of the Maine Freedom of Access Act to ensure and facilitate the public’s understanding of governmental processes and problems.
Therefore, I pledge to support the public policy of the State of Maine that the people have the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their political power.
Specifically, I pledge to uphold and protect the letter and the spirit of the Maine Freedom of Access Act.
I also pledge that I will actively oppose — and not participate in — any meetings to discuss legislative matters where the public is excluded contrary to the letter and spirit of the law.”
Those who were willing to commit to the pledge are listed here. MFOIC sent out press releases pointing interested voters to the site.
Of the 365 candidates, 86 said they were willing to sign the pledge. (Several others said they supported the content but did not feel that candidates should be asked to sign pledges.) This is twice the number who signed a similar pledge in 2012, and represents about 24 percent of legislative candidates.
We hope that respect for the FOAA and open government will be wide and strong among those who are elected in November to serve in the next session of the Maine Legislature.
Jim Campbell is president of the Maine Freedom of Information Council. _______________________________________________________________________________
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.