One of the most important components of a functioning representative democracy is not necessarily a person or place. It’s information. Without it, leaders and voters cannot make the difficult decisions required for governing.
That’s why it’s so disturbing to see, over and over, a disregard within Maine state government for releasing public information. State officials do not own the state’s data and materials. The public does. Taxpayers paid for them.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services in particular has gone to great lengths to control the flow of public information, even to the point of firing a freedom of access coordinator working in the department’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention who authorized the release of a public report to the Bangor Daily News last August.
The excuse given to fire coordinator Judy Gopaul was that she didn’t follow formal, written policies of running the report by DHHS’ lawyer and media relations manager before authorizing its release. However, emails Gopaul retained show she had explicitly been instructed not to run materials by the media relations manager in question. And the DHHS lawyer told human resources investigators it wasn’t necessary for Gopaul to get approval from him to release the material.
What’s more, it was a straightforward report on child and maternal health spending that already should have been posted to DHHS’ website. Firing someone for sending it to a newspaper violates the spirit of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act and is simply cruel.
Unfortunately it fits a pattern within DHHS. Gopaul’s emails showed that by the end of August all information requested under the Freedom of Access Act had to be run through Commissioner Mary Mayhew’s office — a time-consuming, unnecessary move to gain control over the information that finds its way to the public.
That’s no way to provide timely information, especially when the materials in question might be damning. As DHHS Media Relations Manager Samantha Edwards said as part of Gopaul’s human resources investigation, it’s important to see what’s going out, “so that the Commissioner’s Office could ensure that information requested wouldn’t harm the Department.”
But DHHS doesn’t get to decide if it gets to release public information. It must do so under the law, regardless of whether it shows the department in a good or bad light.
The agency clearly hasn’t gotten this important point.
Last month, a legislative aide for state Sen. Brownie Carson made a similarly straightforward request from the Maine CDC for copies of two public reports prepared by a national health organization that accredited Maine’s public health nursing program in 2009 and again in 2012. In addition, in February, Carson sent a list of questions seeking specific details about the public health nursing program.
That’s because Carson is sponsoring legislation that would make DHHS hire more public health nurses who are responsible for preventing the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, responding to disease outbreaks and public health emergencies, and improving the health of moms and their newborns by visiting them in their homes. The LePage administration has left more than half of the state’s public health nurse positions vacant, even as the Legislature has appropriated funds to fill them.
But the requests for information about this important program have gone unheeded. Carson still hasn’t received the accreditation reports, and Sheryl Peavey, the Maine CDC’s chief operating officer, responded to Carson’s list of questions nearly a month later with a letter that contained none of the details Carson sought.
Last week, the CDC released a description of some of the agency’s public health nursing-related initiatives — at 1 p.m. Thursday, the scheduled start time for the Health and Human Services Committee’s vote on Carson’s bill, LD 1108. But it still didn’t answer Carson’s questions.
It is unusual for a state agency — especially one charged with protecting Maine’s health — to be so unaccountable. In any other administration, it’s likely a commissioner or governor would fail to stand for such unforthcoming behavior because it not only infringes on the spirit of open access law and blocks the process of governing, but makes the government look like it’s hiding something.
And when journalists and lawmakers think a government is being secretive, it doesn’t make them stop looking for information. Just the opposite. It gives them fuel to keep digging.