For nearly 60 years, Maine people have been able to attend government meetings and access meeting minutes, under the state’s open government law. Maine’s law passed in 1959, eight years before the federal Freedom of Information Act took effect.
The Maine Legislature later amended state law to clarify that members of the public could record and broadcast meetings, and then again to ensure the law applied to licenses, permits and certificates issued by a government agency. Later, the Legislature expanded the law’s scope to make most paper and electronic documents of government agencies public records.
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act provides the cornerstone for strong journalism and an informed electorate, and should be vigorously defended. As Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham recently told CBS, “The backbone of democracy is a free press and an independent judiciary, and they’re worth fighting and dying for.”
With Sunshine Week upon us, it’s a good time to remember what open access means to Maine and point out where the state can continue to improve:
Publicize contract awards. State government spends millions of taxpayer dollars every year to purchase thousands of goods and services from outside organizations, usually through a competitive bidding process. But it’s nearly impossible for Maine residents to know which organization or business wins the contracts, and why. While other states list the public procurement information online in easily searchable databases, Maine does not. It should.
It’s especially important for people to have insight into how spending decisions are being made given Gov. Paul LePage’s limited communication to legislators and members of the media. LePage has also done away with requiring a legal review by the attorney general’s office of proposed contracts worth $3 million or more, meaning there’s even less public oversight of major contract awards.
Increase understanding of the state budget. The Maine Legislature publishes the finalized state budget in its bill-lookup database, but it is difficult to find and even more difficult for a layperson to understand. It should be more accessible to a broader audience and written in nontechnical language. The Center for Public Integrity gave Maine a failing grade when it came to granting citizens access to state budget-related information.
Follow the spirit of the law. More than specific ways to increase access to public information, it’s equally important for state and local leaders to follow the spirit of the law. For instance, when LePage fails to inform the Legislature about his plans for the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center, or makes a decision to go around the authority of the Legislature, he is preventing valuable information not just from reaching lawmakers but the public as well.
The same goes for local leaders, who must remember to speedily provide public documents to people who ask for them, not overreach with their closed-door meetings and, in general, support the free flow of information.
Open access isn’t just a law, it’s an attitude. During Sunshine Week, and all weeks, let’s make sure to remember that.