Open access to paperless records
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is based on the principle that government best serves the public when it operates in the most open manner possible. Without open meetings and access to public records citizens won’t know what their government is up to — and democracy can’t function properly.
So it should be a matter of grave concern to all Maine citizens — not just the press — that the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting essentially had a roadblock thrown in its path this spring when it requested documents from the Maine Public Utilities Commission as part of its research into the 2008 law to fast-track wind turbine development in the state.
As reported by the center’s Naomi Schalit in the three-part series that ran this week in The Times Record and several other Maine newspapers, the Wind Energy Act of 2008 implements a set of recommendations made unanimously by a task force named by Gov. John Baldacci in 2007.
The resulting legislation wasn’t even debated when it was approved unanimously by the Maine House and Senate. As Schalit notes in her first article, it “was a special interest bill justified at the time in the name of jobs, energy independence and climate change.”
Not surprisingly, given the lack of debate and scrutiny as the bill flew through the Legislature in 2008, it took time for the public to grasp what the Wind Energy Act’s ambitious goals of constructing 1,000 to 2,000 turbines by 2020 actually means ... and the impact that might have on Maine’s western mountains.
What Schalit has done is raise important questions about the process by which this major piece of legislation became law. Key among them is how the governor’s task force created a map showing where wind turbines could go to receive fast-track consideration. What she discovered is that it’s not clear from the official record, largely because summaries for the task force’s last two meetings don’t exist.
The lack of a paper trail is an obvious red flag, and dogged reporter that she is, Schalit used the obvious tool for any Maine citizen curious about how laws and policies come about: She filed an FOAA request with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, whose former chairman, Kurt Adams, had accepted a job with the wind power company First Wind in April 2008.
Schalit sought e-mails from 2005 to 2007 between Adams and First Wind, between Adams and Baldacci (for whom he had previously worked as legal counsel), and between Adams and several wind power attorneys employed by Verrill Dana. Given Adams’ role as PUC chairman, his close ties to Baldacci and subsequent employment with First Wind, the requested documents would seem germane to the public’s interest in the deliberations of the governor’s wind power task force.
How germane? We might never know. That’s because Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting initially was told it would cost upwards of $10,000 for the PUC to search for the requested information on backup discs of its e-mail records.
The center asked for a waiver, as allowed in the FOAA. The state refused and amended its cost estimate to $36,239.52.
Clearly, that’s “access” in theory only.
If the state’s computer archiving system is so inefficient that it cannot retrieve requested electronic records easily or at minimal expense, the public loses its ability to keep track of what’s going on. Government becomes, then, less accountable.
It’s not likely that this is an isolated failure, given the push for “paperless” records at all levels of government.
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act needs to be brought into the 21st century, with provisions added that would prevent state, county and local governments from creating de facto barriers of difficulty and cost when the records being sought are only available in electronic form.
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