Gov. Paul LePage would like to change Maine’s public records laws to shield vast amounts of information from public scrutiny.
Through the state’s Right to Know Advisory Committee, the governor has proposed legislation that would deny public access to mountains of information in his office, including proposals for legislation, working papers and interoffice and intraoffice memos.
The list of exempted information applies not only to records created by the governor himself but also to those created by any employee of the governor’s office.
The language of the bill, LD 1805, is broad and would give great latitude to this governor — and future governors — to undermine public access to important information. That information could include everything from information about the state budget to performance reviews for government programs and activities.
Maine’s Freedom of Access laws are essential to the proper functioning of government. They protect the rights of residents to attend public meetings, to review records of government’s activities and to hold elected and appointed officials accountable for their actions.
Under current law, the working papers of legislators used to craft bills are exempted as public records. The LePage administration has argued that it’s reasonable to extend the same exemption to the governor and his staff.
We disagree. In fact, if any change in the law is appropriate, it would be to remove the exemption for legislators. More sunshine, not less, is the path to good government.
The unitary power of the state’s chief executive and his ability to drive the legislative agenda require that his activities be conducted in the full light of day. That standard applies to current and future governors just as it has applied to governors in the past.
We understand that Maine’s freedom of access laws place an increasing burden on the governor’s office and all of state government. And we are willing to concede that the access laws can be abused and used as a weapon to slow government’s work or intimidate the people trying to carry it out.
But we also believe that the public has an absolute right to understand how the governor’s legislative agenda is developed, how his ideas are formed and who has influenced them.
While the proposal suggests that newly exempted information will eventually become public after the Legislature has acted on the governor’s agenda, that’s not good enough. Even here the bill is so vague as to make it possible to hide documents for years at a time.
As lawmakers — and the public — consider whether a bill should be enacted, they should have access to information that will help them understand how the idea came to be.
Republican, Democratic and independent governors all have managed to comply with Maine’s public records laws. The law works. This change is unnecessary and dangerous.
Government in Maine remains close to the people. Whether it’s our tradition of high voter turnout or participation in town meetings, our government remains accountable. We should tread lightly when building new walls that separate the people from their government and its leaders. This proposal would do just that and is unacceptable in its current form.