Democracy or a burden? Towns inundated with information requests

Posted Oct. 17, 2011, at 5:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Cities and towns struggling to address increased public skepticism of government have seen a spike in the number of information requests from residents who want to know exactly what their local officials are up to.

The Maine Municipal Association, which represents the interests of most cities and towns across the state, reported recently that as many as 20 communities have struggled to keep up with a “serial” influx of requests under the state’s Freedom of Access Act.

Jay Feyler, Union town manager, said he has responded to 75 such requests from a small group of residents over a 12-month period. Nathan Poore, town manager in Falmouth, said he dealt with nearly 100 Freedom of Access Act requests last year from one resident alone.

In those towns and many others across the state, the number of requests and the suspicious tone of the residents asking for information has affected morale.

“In some cases, it’s just plain harassment,” said Maine Municipal Association spokesman Eric Conrad. “It distracts local officials from what they really should be doing.”

The association is further concerned that LD 1465, a bill carried over from the first legislative session, would make it easier for members of the public to get information and therefore harder for municipal officials to keep up with requests.

The proposed law change would allow requests to be made by telephone instead of a written letter and would require an immediate response.

“Immediate response in a town office of two people, when those two people are doing several other things, doesn’t seem rational,” Conrad said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, also provides funds to pay for a part-time position within the Attorney General’s Office to act as a public access ombudsman and handle requests. Additionally, each department would be asked to designate a public access officer.

The proposed legislation was held over to allow the Legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee time to assess the impact.

But Conrad said Maine Municipal Association members already are overwhelmingly transparent when it comes to providing information to the public. He said the handful of instances in which municipal officials have been caught up in something illegal or unethical should not taint all cities and towns.

Hampden Town Manager Susan Lessard said her office is among those that has seen more information requests in the last year, particularly after townspeople expressed concerns about the town’s comprehensive plan update.

“There haven’t been any requests that I would call unreasonable, but in some cases those requests were for information that goes back several years and that took time to track down,” she said. “Even if the requests are overwhelming, I believe the more information communities provide, the better.”

In many ways, though, that work paid off in Hampden, Lessard said. Now many documents that used to exist only on paper have been scanned and are available online to anyone who wants to look.

“As it is, most information is on our website now,” she said. “Sometimes people just need to know where to look.”

But Hampden’s manager agreed that high-profile cases of embezzlement by town officials and other allegations of wrongdoing have affected all communities to some degree.

“Everybody gets tarred with the same brush,” Lessard said. “They think, ‘If it happened there, it must be happening here too.’”

In many cases, information is easy to come by. Most if not all municipalities have their own websites and archive meeting minutes, agendas, budget information, ordinances and any other records that residents might find helpful.

Norman Heitmann, city solicitor for Bangor, said he hasn’t seen any more information requests than usual. For awhile, several residents sought information about the city’s long debate over whether to build a new arena and civic center, but those rarely resulted in formal requests.

“Usually if someone asks for something and we have it, they can get it,” Heitmann said.

Conrad agreed that when the requests are targeted or specific, officials usually can respond easily. In other cases, residents are requesting large volumes of information that tax local resources.

In Union, the town manager said the requests started coming in the summer of 2010 after the town proposed borrowing $1 million for road repairs. Townspeople wanted to know which roads would benefit from those repairs and why.

“It was like, ‘I want to catch you on something,’” Feyler told the MMA. “‘Everyone’s crooked and I’m going to prove it.’”

The same thing happened in the town of Poland. A woman routinely filed information requests, according to Town Manager Dana Lee, looking for problems that were not there.

“Her particular beef in life was that some people are ‘haves’ and some are ‘have nots,’” Lee said. “She was trying to prove wrongdoing. We kept giving her information and she’d get angry when there was nothing. Then she’d redouble her efforts.”

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