AUGUSTA, Maine — In what could be a blow to public access to Maine’s State House proceedings, Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, is questioning whether legislative committee meetings should continue to be recorded and archived.
Streamed online, the public meetings of the Legislature and its standing committees are available to anyone with an Internet connection. The sessions are also digitally recorded and are made available upon request to those who ask for them.
Also streamed, recorded and archived are the proceedings of the state House and Senate.
While Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, the state’s open meetings and public records law, requires the Legislature and almost all elected bodies in Maine to conduct the vast majority of their business in public, there are no requirements those proceedings be broadcast or digitally recorded.
Mason said Thursday he’s concerned that any person who participates in a public hearing may not necessarily know a video and audio recording of their testimony is being captured for posterity. He said his objection to recording and archiving committee meetings is meant to protect individuals’ privacy.
Mason and at least two other members of the Legislative Council, the governing body for the Legislature, also said they want to prohibit the use of video or audio clips of lawmakers speaking either during House and Senate floor proceedings or in committees from being used in political campaigns.
“I am not comfortable with archiving of any kind,” Mason said. “I think that’s where the public is. We just had a very long discussion about people getting videotaped at the polls, intimidation and all that. I’m just very uncomfortable with members of the public being archived in perpetuity on government servers.”
Mason said live broadcasts of the meetings on the Internet are not a problem for him and that he supports allowing that to continue.
Currently, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network frequently captures audio and video from legislative proceedings for its broadcasts. Other commercial media — including television, radio, newspapers and news websites — use the state’s online streaming service or in-house audio system to record proceedings in committee rooms and the chambers.
Video and audio recordings are also regularly made by reporters and others from inside committee hearing rooms and from inside the House and Senate chambers, which wouldn’t change under Mason’s proposal.
Lawmakers on the council seemed to agree that video recordings and the archiving system now in place for proceedings in the House and Senate would stay in place going forward.
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he thought better disclosure, including signs in committee rooms that note proceedings are public and are being recorded, may be the best solution.
“I think people always just assume the only time they are being recorded is when the media is standing there,” McCabe said.
McCabe also noted that during a period when MPBN was regularly broadcasting committee meetings live on its Capitol Connection service, which ended due to lack of funding, lawmakers tended to behave in a more civil manner toward one another.
“I know that some people used to have a really hard time with being videoed,” McCabe said. “But I also noticed that committees’ level of professionalism and how they met with themselves improved and people were a little more cautious about how they carried themselves.”
McCabe also said Maine was among the minority of states without a clear policy for recording and archiving committee meetings. Many other states were already doing that, he said.
“So many states out there have gone to this form, not only archiving but also being accessible to the public, so I wouldn’t want to see us be the last one to get on board,” McCabe said.
Later Thursday with a 9-0 vote, the Legislative Council decided to continue recording and archiving committee meetings for the remainder of the 127th legislative session, which will likely adjourn by Saturday.
The vote also directed the Legislative Council, which will meet once a month between the current lawmaking session and the next starting in December, to make a decision on recording and archiving committee meetings.