AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would have opened records on industrial hazardous waste and mercury emission control plans was vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Earth Day.
Under current law the plans are protected as “trade secrets.”
The bill, LD 1821, also would have upheld the current requirement for government agencies to acknowledge a request for public records within five days, but added language that if agencies ignore that requirement their inaction would be interpreted as a denial of records 10 days after the request was made.
The measure would have treated no response on a request as a denial and it set an appeal process that a person seeking public records could pursue in the courts to gain access to the public records.
LePage cited several reasons for vetoing the measure, including his concern that it did not go far enough to overhaul the state’s Freedom of Access Act as it pertains to the working papers of lawmakers and the governor’s office.
Current law protects the working papers of lawmakers but makes the working papers of the governor public records.
LePage wrote the bill only “nibbles around the edges of the law without addressing real flaws in it.”
He also said the bill does nothing to protect the government against nuisance records requests or overly broad requests for information.
A bill that would have addressed such so-called nuisance requests, which had been recommended by the Right to Know Advisory Committee, was rejected by the Judiciary Committee early in the session.
In the veto letter, LePage cited his own experience with FOAA, noting special interest groups were using the law as a means to attack him politically.
“They request years of all communications between my office and certain commissioners, my personal grocery bill and other fishing expeditions that are not about a transparent government,” LePage wrote. “Instead they are about trying to cripple the operations of my office with thousands of hours of staff time and creating a distraction from doing the people’s business.”
But supporters of the changes, including members of Maine’s environmental community, said LePage is overlooking important changes that would, in fact, make the government more transparent and responsive. They say the measure would have allowed important disclosures that affect the public’s health.
“This is a troubling veto of a bill that would provide more public information about toxic pollution that may be occurring in communities across the state,” said Pete Didisheim, the senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
He said a pollution permit application for one of the state’s largest sources of mercury emissions, Dragon Cement and Concrete in Thomaston, was currently pending and its control plan would be of important public interest.
“Mercury emissions are a serious problem and Maine people have a right to understand what the major mercury sources are,” Didisheim said.
He also said LePage’s administration, despite the governor’s promise of greater transparency, has been notoriously slow and obstructive when it comes to public records requests.
“We also have been waiting almost six months for information from the governor’s office and his promise to be the most transparent governor has not held up, as they simply have not processed FOAA requests that the people of Maine have a right to submit,” Didisheim said.
The bill, which also would have added a seat to the Right to Know Advisory Committee for someone with expertise in technology, was approved by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and was unanimously enacted by the full Legislature. The veto will be one of more than a dozen lawmakers are expected to address when they reconvene May 1.
The governor also vetoed LD 1809, a bill that would have permitted water and sewer districts to hold meetings electronically. That bill was intended to clarify whether a government agency is allowed to meet by phone or other electronic means.