FALMOUTH, Maine — A bill introduced by state Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, would limit public access to information that is currently part of the public record and allow municipalities to charge more for information they do provide.
Nelson said the bill is not necessarily a reaction to an incident last June in which frequent town government critic Michael Doyle sent an email to the town’s 3,100 subscribers through a security hole in the town’s email server.
She said abuse of publicly available email distribution lists has become a problem for many municipalities.
“Certainly Falmouth has a real-life example but there were other communities that were dealing with this also,” Nelson said. “It certainly raised the issue, which we brought up with the Maine Municipal Association.”
Eric Conrad, Maine Municipal Association communications director, said between 10 and 20 communities in Maine, notably Falmouth, Union and Poland, have had problems with similar Freedom of Access requests.
“What has happened in recent years is that towns and cities have been trying harder to enforce their rights about communication and creating email and distribution lists,” Conrad said. “In a few cases there have been instances where people have requested through the Freedom of Access Act to get all of those addresses to send information [subscribers] didn’t want.”
He said the Maine Municipal Association supports Nelson’s bill and believes one-way communication, like subscriber lists, should be protected. He clarified that the proposed law would not exempt conversations with town officials, but would allow towns to redact personal email addresses from publicly available subscriber lists.
Nelson said the bill protects people from unwanted solicitation and is another identity safeguard.
“Email addresses are a gateway to a terrific amount of personal information,” she said. “The way in which you have your identity stolen often is through that gateway. Those who ask for the town to send notices to them by email, I believe [the town should protect] those email addresses as a piece of private information, just as they wouldn’t give out a Social Security number.”
Both Conrad and Nelson said the bill is an extension of a 2011 revision of the Freedom of Access Act, which allowed the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to protect the email addresses of fishing and hunting license applicants. That revision allowed applicants to opt out of having their email address made public.
“[Before the revision], organizations and businesses were using those addresses to solicit, and the state got a lot of complaints on that,” Conrad said.
Nelson’s bill also changes the fee structure for Freedom of Access requests. Currently, municipalities are required to provide the first hour of research for a public records request at no charge; subsequent hours may be charged up to $15 per hour.
The change to the fee structure, according to Nelson, would maintain the first free hour. But after that towns would be allowed to charge the hourly wage of the lowest-paid employee capable of fulfilling the request.
“[The fee change] is a way of trying to help towns cover what could become a very significant cost to the town,” Nelson said. “The first hour of any FOAA request is free, and after that the towns felt that it is appropriate to charge somebody if you have a very expensive request which requires many hours of going through electronic and written records. It takes a town employee away from their divine duty.”
But opponents believe Nelson’s attempt to limit access to public information is problematic.
The Maine Right to Know Advisory Committee has not met yet to discuss this specific legislation, but Judy Meyer, managing editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston and a member of the committee, said email addresses have been a topic of discussion for at least the last four years.
“We have no consensus on our committee about shielding email addresses,” she said. “[But] street addresses are not confidential and never have been, no one feels the need to do that, so we can’t come up with a plausible reason why email addresses should be shielded.”
Meyer said that while the committee does not necessarily believe that the addresses should be shielded, members do recognize that this is a localized problem and the committee has asked Maine’s public access ombudsman to examine the problem and see if it extends to more than a few isolated towns.
If that were the case, Meyer said, she and other committee members might be persuaded to change their minds.
“The evidence we had before said that this is a Falmouth-specific problem,” she said. “So I don’t think it is really responsible for us to do any more until we have some data.”
Meyer said the committee did raise the fee for public records requests from $10 to $15 last year in an attempt to curb “abusive requests,” but members did not support moving to an actual-cost fee structure. She said the higher fee structure could price residents out of obtaining information they have a right to access.
Doyle, who helped stir the pot last June with his request, said he feels blocking residents from accessing public records by limiting them or by implementing the proposed fee structure is undemocratic.
“I really don’t have a good feeling about [this],” he said. “I think it is a terrible injustice to nonconflict inquirers of information. This is going to put individuals who don’t have vast resources at a disadvantage. This [public] information is the property of the citizens of Maine.”
Doyle said he feels the change in fee structure for public records requests would price many people out of being able to ask questions of their government officials.
“I believe that in Falmouth at least, the only people who will be able to answer my questions at this point are [Town Manager] Nathan Poore or [Superintendent of Schools] Barbara Powers, at $56 an hour,” he said. “We’re talking quite a bit of money.”
In Falmouth, because of the volume of Freedom of Access requests — Doyle alone has submitted hundreds — Poore has been appointed to handle all public records requests.
Doyle said he feels the bill is aimed at stopping him from asking questions.
“This has wide-ranging ramifications,” he said. “This is a law being proposed to stop me from asking questions that will impact the entire state, [but] they haven’t been able to intimidate me to stop asking questions.”
He added that he has asked the Judiciary Committee to inform him of any public hearings because “I would be up there in a second.”
Meyer said she feels the type of limits proposed by Nelson create a “slippery slope” and are a step in the wrong direction.
“At some point, once we say that we are going to qualify this part, this method of communication, it is going to be too easy to pile on that,” she said. “I don’t even want to make the first step on that journey without a really definable reason that is backed up by evidence.
“The overwhelming feeling on the Right to Know Advisory Committee is that we need some reasons that we can define and hold onto in order to take this enormous step toward confidentiality.”