FALMOUTH, Maine — Maine’s highest court has rejected an appeal by a frequent town government critic who sought Falmouth School Department telephone records under the state’s Freedom of Access Act.
Michael Doyle of Applegate Lane requested all the phone records from former Superintendent of Schools Barbara Powers’ town-issued cellphone. When the town responded by providing redacted records, Doyle sued in Superior Court for the unredacted information.
After being rebuked there, he appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which affirmed the lower-court decision on Dec. 23.
According to court documents, Doyle submitted a Freedom of Access Act request to the town Oct. 23, 2013, to inspect and copy Powers’ July, August and September 2013 cellphone bills. The superintendent and other school district employees are provided with cellphones they can use for personal purposes.
Powers provided the town with copies of the records for those months, with redacted information she considered nonpublic and confidential, and thus beyond the scope of Doyle’s Freedom of Access Act request. The town made copies of those redacted files for Doyle.
The self-proclaimed government “watchdog” sued, claiming the town had not complied with his Freedom of Access Act request, and he was entitled to receive the unredacted copies. The court then told the town to provide it with unredacted documents for private review and also to provide supporting papers to Doyle “except for those that would disclose the records or information or portions thereof that the [town and school department] contend are not public records subject to disclosure.”
The department complied and filed a memorandum of law explaining each redaction’s legal basis, along with an affidavit from Powers, a spreadsheet identifying the nature of the call for each telephone number that was redacted, and the unredacted cellular telephone records for only the court’s review.
Doyle was provided with the same bills and documentation, except with the subject telephone numbers redacted. The redacted copies of the cellular telephone records indicate the date, time and duration of all calls placed or received by Powers, as well as the total amount charged to the school department for the superintendent’s use of the telephone.
The court concluded the telephone numbers of department employees, including Powers, are exempt from the definition of public records; records of school officials’ personal phone calls are not a public matter; and the telephone numbers of Falmouth students’ parents are confidential pursuant to the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, and they are therefore exempt from the definition of public records.
The unsigned Supreme Judicial Court opinion states that “redacting portions of cellular telephone records that are exempt from disclosure pursuant to the [Freedom of Access Act] is permissible.”
It goes on to say that a school is allowed to release directory information, which may include telephone numbers, only if it has given parents advance notice of the intended information being released. The Falmouth School Department does not include phone numbers in its directory information.
Doyle in the past several years has filed hundreds of Freedom of Access Act requests with the town. He is regarded as one of the Maine’s most prolific Freedom of Access Act users, if not the most prolific, at times sending off requests on nearly a daily basis.
Doyle, who is retired from the insurance industry and also formerly worked as a securities trader, also was an unsuccessful two-time school board candidate. He most recently ran in 2013 on a platform of budget reviews and cost cutting, and he finished third in a four-way race for two seats.
In 2002, Doyle pleaded guilty to misrepresenting and selling unregistered securities. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison with all but 14 months suspended, and he was ordered to pay a $16,000 fine. He contends his conviction was the fault of his lawyers, who he claimed tricked him into pleading guilty twice.
Doyle, who represented himself in the recent lawsuit against the town, also has frequently butted heads with members of the town government.
In 2010, he began a petition to have then-Town Council Chairwoman and current state Sen. Cathy Breen recalled, on the basis she failed to comply with council rules. His petition went nowhere.
In 2011, Doyle filed a complaint against a member of the School Board, claiming he was assaulted during a board meeting. The complaint, filed against then Vice Chairman and current Chairman Andrew Kinley, followed an altercation over public seating during a board meeting. No charges were brought against Kinley.
The town began to require a police presence at meetings, in part, in response to Doyle’s often argumentative and accusatory comments at Town Council meetings.
In 2012, after one of his many Freedom of Access Act requests, Doyle was provided with access to more than 3,100 email addresses of town residents who subscribed to the town’s email notification service. Doyle then sent out a mass email on June 9 of that year. This breach eventually led to lawmakers proposing changes in Freedom of Access Act requests to protect email addresses of people who subscribe to government website and email announcement lists.