ACLU opposes bill that could hide some public records

Feb 23, 2012

Augusta — The American Civil Liberties Union and the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition Feb. 23 announced its strong opposition to LD 1805, which threatens to create a broad, and potentially dangerous, new exemption to Maine’s Freedom of Access laws.

“Maine’s Freedom of Access laws have worked for decades, helping to ensure that government is transparent and held accountable,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine and a member of the Board of Directors of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said in a news release. “The proposed legislation is so broad and vague that it could be used to deny access to important information regarding the state budget, program performance reviews or other critical data used to develop public policy, The public has the right to know how policy affecting their lives, their businesses and their state is written.”

This bill creates a public records exception for proposed legislation, reports and working papers of the governor and the governor's office. The proposed legislation, reports and working papers do not become public records until they are publicly distributed or until the adjournment of the legislative session for which the proposed legislation, reports and working papers are prepared.

“Republican, Democratic and Independent governors have been successful without this broad exemption,” said Alysia Melnick, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine. “A governor could use this exemption to keep almost any public record in his office secret. The public has a legitimate right to access those records.”

Current law includes a similar exemption for members of the Legislature, but the staff resources and power of the governor to set and implement public policy and to drive the agenda make this proposal much more troublesome. The broad exemption would shield from disclosure the work not only of the governor, but of “employees of the governor’s office,” including working papers, drafts, interoffice and intraoffice memos and any other material used to prepare potential legislation or reports to the Legislature.

More than a dozen Maine organizations oppose LD 1805 including the ACLU, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, the Maine Association of Broadcasters, the Maine Press Association, the Children’s Center Augusta, Common Cause, Conservation Law Foundation, Consumers for Affordable Health Care, Environmental Health Strategy Center, EqualityMaine, the League of Women Voters, Maine Conservation Voters, Maine Library Association, Maine People’s Alliance, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Sierra Club of Maine.

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