AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine people are interested in what their governments are up to.
That’s the upshot, at least, of a new report issued by the state’s ombudsman for open meetings and public records.
In 2015, there were 416 inquiries about public meetings and public records handled by Brenda Kielty, a lawyer within the Maine attorney general’s office, who is the state’s first official Freedom of Access Act ombudsman.
Kielty, who issued a report to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, said that was a 37 percent increase from the 303 inquiries she handled in 2013. She said the bulk of those contacts, 169, came from private citizens and the second largest sector were contacts from other state agencies at 96. The media had 25 contacts with her office over FOAA records in 2015 while municipalities contacted her 31 times.
“I see that as a success in the program, which means that more people are accessing the resource that we have to offer them,” Kielty said.
The ombudsman’s position was created by the Legislature in 2007 to educate the public and government officials on the state’s open records laws as well as to resolve disputes over records requests, without advocating for one side or the other.
Kielty said requests related to municipal-level records made up the majority of inquiries to her office and those looking for information were increasingly asking for access to email messages to, from and between elected officials or other government workers.
“Most of them still come from private citizens and most of them have to do with access to public records held by municipalities,” Kielty said.
She said the large number of city, town and county governments in Maine made those statistics relatively unsurprising.
Kielty also said over the last two years the number of requests from state agency employees seeking advice on the law increased from 56 requests in 2014 to 96 in 2015.
“The agency staff are contacting me to get information before there’s a dispute to make sure they are understanding their obligations under the law or to try to deal with requesters they have had some problems with,” Kielty said.
In her 22-page report, Kielty also noted state agencies charged $11,273 in fees for responding to requests, and they spent at least 1,296 hours on those requests.
Kielty said that not all state agencies were able to report the number of hours they spent on FOAA each year but that the Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s largest agency, saw the largest number of requests at 330 and spent the most time on them at 404 hours.
Meanwhile, she said, the state’s Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Services saw the fewest number of requests at six.
Kielty also told the committee she on occasion had to advise state and local agencies that they needed to produce records that they were disputing were public.