Maine lawmakers worry that recordings of public hearings may be used to embarrass them – and are considering ways to stop that from happening.

By Judith Meyer, Guest Contributor

Would it be OK for Maine to copyright all audio recordings of legislative committee hearings solely to restrict the use of embarrassing exchanges?

No. And, yet, the Legislative Council’s State House Facilities Committee is discussing this very thing.

Last month, after members of the Committee voted to maintain audio recordings instead of destroying them, a decision was made to investigate the cost and process of copyrighting these records to limit their use. It would be an unprecedented move for Maine and is being considered for the wrong reason.

Which is? Protecting sitting lawmakers from adversaries who may use their audio quotes to embarrass them in the political arena. It’s not to protect the integrity of the records. It would be done only to spare lawmakers from themselves, from off-the-cuff things they may say in committee that may then be used against them for future —possibly harmful — political purposes. The Facilities Committee discussed the possibility of copyright restrictions for political use while permitting access for educational and research use.

Here’s the problem: Not all political purposes are bad. Would banning political use prevent lawmakers from using recordings to highlight their most compelling arguments? Their most thoughtful suggestions? Their best-articulated positions shared during committee hearings? It would. So, this idea of banning political use may well shield the odd stuff lawmakers say, but it would also bar use of all the good that comes from committee work.

And who decides what is educational or research use? From a media perspective, our political coverage is always intended to educate readers and viewers. So, under this very informal scenario being discussed, the media could argue educational use even when lawmakers behave badly, which means the very thing lawmakers want to protect would not be protected. So why do it? And, is it even possible?

Copyright protection is intended to protect original and creative thought from use by others. And while there is a great amount of original thought and many creative ideas presented during public hearings, not all of it comes from lawmakers. Much of it comes from members of the public who testify and who purposely intend for their testimony to be heard and consumed by the public.

Do people offering testimony really want it to be restricted from wide dissemination?

Very doubtful. And, could government claim to “own” that testimony for purposes of copyright? Absolutely not.

The most important obstacle here, and it’s a glaring one, is the clear collision between copyright and public access. Legislative committees operate in public. The public has access to hearings (which are recorded and which recordings are instantly public records) and all written testimony. That’s the law. To drop a copyright on the audio portion of this material fundamentally changes public access to those records.

The entire purpose of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is for the public to understand the governmental process. The law doesn’t say only “good” records are public, or that the public may attend meetings only when everyone behaves.

Worse, this radical change in access is being considered outside the legislative process, without public hearing. So, while the Facilities Committee has been good enough to accept comments on this issue, it’s being done as a courtesy, not as a requirement.

If we could, for a moment, put all these issues aside, there’s still the practical irony: copyrighting can be prohibitively expensive, and copyrighting the daily work of multiple committees would be grossly expensive. So, we — the taxpayers — would be asked to foot the bill to restrict our access to public records in order to spare lawmakers from possible embarrassment caused by their own words or actions.

How is that our responsibility? It isn’t.

The Legislative Council’s Facilities Committee last considered this issue on May 23 and asked Executive Director Grant Pennoyer to research copyright cost and process for consideration at its next meeting, which is not yet scheduled. When it is, we must protest this on the basis of purpose, access, and cost. These audio recordings are unquestionably the public’s records, and we have a right to access without restriction.

Judith Meyer is executive editor of the Sun Journal, a vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a member of the Legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee.

Impact on Issues: the positions behind our advocacy work

Introducing Impact on Issues from the League of Women Voters of Maine

By Stephanie Philbrick

impact-lwv-jan-2017We believe that transparency and accountability are essential to a functioning government and we closely monitor the Maine Legislature to make sure they are conducting business in an open and accessible manner. Because of that, we hold ourselves to the same standard. Our positions and actions are public and, while we wholeheartedly stand behind our established positions, we welcome discussion about our work. Impact on Issues is one of the ways that we work to educate our members and the public about our work.

This report describes our current priorities and the positions that are the basis for our advocacy work. It’s also a ten-year retrospective of the work that we’ve done in these policy areas. Our positions align with those of the League of Women Voters of the U.S. (LWVUS) but reflect local priorities and the unique nature of Maine’s citizenry and politics. We focus on areas of specific concern in our state, with an emphasis on voting rights, elections administration, campaign finance and good government.

We also endeavor to shine a light on policy work in Augusta throughout each legislative session. We regularly report on specific bills, legislative committees, hearings, work sessions and other aspects of Maine government through this blog. This year, we’re expanding our work in this area to better track what goes on in Augusta. Look for:

  • legislative scorecards on selected bills we follow
  • Action Alerts, updates and event info on Twitter and Facebook
  • an updated version of Impact on Issues after the legislative session ends

At the foundation of our work is the belief that any and all citizens should be able to access (and understand) our government if they want to. We hope you’re inspired to make use of all that the League has to offer to stay informed. And if you’re ready to take action:

  • Join us! There are lots of ways to get involved in state and local issues through the state League and local chapters.
  • Go to a legislative hearing/work session – look for us (with our League buttons on)!
  • Call your legislators
  • Write an op-ed in your local newspaper

 

 

2016 Ballot Questions

On Election Day, Mainers will decide on several important (and possibly controversial) issues. There are five citizens initiatives and one bond issue on the ballot. This presentation provides the descriptions, background and yes/no arguments for all six of these questions.

Voting is your opportunity to have a say in planning for Maine’s future. Don’t miss your chance – be sure to vote.

 

Opinion: Maine has lost its long time commitment to open government

By Mal Leary, Guest Contributor to LWVME blog

When I was growing up, my dad would take me to the annual town meeting where the long tradition of New England open government was on display. Every expenditure of the town was voted on and the town books, the physical ledgers of expenditures, were on a table for townspeople to examine. And they did.

Everyone who was a resident of the town could comment and ask questions, and sometimes it seemed they all did as the day wore on. They participated. Some ran for office, often reluctantly saying somebody has to do it. Most simply showed up and voted for selectmen and participated in the town meeting.

As towns have grown and government at all levels has gotten more complex, there is less direct democracy and more representative democracy. Town Councils have replaced town meetings in many places, and cities have developed more and more services that require more and more employees and a more complex bureaucracy removed from the voters.

The state legislature used to meet once every two years and special sessions were rare because of the difficulty of getting lawmakers to Augusta. Concerned about the loss of transparency with more and more bureaucracy, lawmakers passed Maine’s first open meetings and public records law in 1959.

It stated all records were public and open for inspection and copying, unless the legislature had passed a specific exemption. Those first exemptions were the obvious ones like ongoing criminal investigations. But they have grown to hundreds of exemptions over the years.

All representative government meetings, from selectmen meetings to state lawmakers committees, were also declared open for any in the public to attend. Some specific exemptions were added such as the ability to consult the town attorney on a legal matter or one concerning personnel. But no action could be taken by any board, commission or legislative committee in a closed session.

In recent years the legacy of open government has been eroded. Sometimes it is difficult, even painful, to discuss issues in public. It’s often easier to discuss something on the phone or by email or text, than in front of the public. Particularly if the issue is controversial.

As Ed Muskie once told me, no one asks you to run for public office. It’s something you decide to do and you should be ready to conduct yourself in public. He was a key supporter and author of some of the provisions in the 1974 federal Freedom of Information Act that updated and expanded the original 1966 law that we celebrate this year, fifty years after it was enacted.

In the last few years, we have seen an erosion of the law in Maine.  Last year, worried they were running out of time to get the state budget passed by the start of the new budget year, legislative leaders met privately to craft a budget that would get the needed votes. It was hard. Very hard, but in the end they reached an agreement and rushed the budget to the floor for a vote.

Only they knew all the details in the hundreds of pages, lawmakers had only hours to study the budget and the public had even less time. They made a travesty of the law and their own rules and the budget was passed, and as a reporter I remember finding out about sections and the impact they would have only weeks after the budget was law.

I had served on the legislature’s Right to Know Advisory Committee since it was created in 2005, and decided to resign in protest of the flagrant disregard of the law. The committee has done a lot of good work reviewing proposed exceptions and stopping some bad laws before they were passed. It also has reviewed existing laws and in many cases recommended improvements that were adopted by the legislature.

Recently it was the Executive branch that flagrantly violated the law. Gov. Paul LePage met with members of a statutorily created commission to study education in Maine.  They met at the Blaine House for the first meeting and members of the public and reporters were turned away at the gate.

The meeting was illegal, but there is no easy enforcement mechanism in Maine law. An individual must go to court and get an injunction to stop a meeting. Yes, we have a Public Access Ombudsman in the Attorney General’s office, but they are not independent and do not have the authority to go to court without the Attorney General’s approval. The ombudsman can issue only advisory opinions.

It is not that way in all states. In Connecticut, since 1975, they have had the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission that has the authority to investigate and fine agencies and individuals that violate the law and can go to court to seek further action against violators.

Other states are looking at developing a simple process to appeal records or meeting decisions with an administrative process far less expensive than the courts.

Since its creation in 2000, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition has worked to educate lawmakers, and the public, about open meetings and access to public records. It has had some success, like the requirement all elected officials take an online course about the law. Clearly some either take the course and forget what they learned, or they ignore the law.

We need a stronger law, with penalties for those that willfully violate the law. It will take a lot of work, but advocates for open government need to take up the cause.

 

Mal Leary is Vice President of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and is currently serving as President of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. 

Top Ten Reasons to Support LWVME in 2015

 

Giving Tuesday 2015 copyWe hope your Thanksgiving was full of family, friends, food and fun.  We hope, for those of you who like a good bargain, that Black Friday and Cyber Monday brought you many steals and deals.DonateStar

Now, we hope you will help us have a successful #GivingTuesday by supporting the League of Women Voters of Maine and our efforts to make democracy work better in Maine.

Top ten reasons to support LWVME in 2015:

10. Registering new voters.  On National Voter Registration Day, at naturalization ceremonies across the state, and throughout the year the League is there making sure citizens are registered.  So far this year, we have helped to register more than 400 new voters.

9. Annual Easy-to-Read Voter Guide.  The 2015 guides helped Portland voters make informed decisions on the mayoral race, and all Maine voters got the facts on the statewide ballot questions.

8. Open Dialogue and Civil Discourse.  Through candidate and issue forums the League gave voters an unbiased place to ask questions and get them answered.

7. Advocacy.  Providing expert testimony in Augusta on voting rights and laws that encourage voter participation.

6. All-Volunteer.  That’s right.  The League does all this great work and more through volunteers.

5. Holding our local and state officials accountable.  The League is a leading voice in Maine for your right to know and our right to a government free of corruption and undue influence.

4. Ranked Choice Voting in Maine.  Ranked Choice Voting is certified for the ballot in 2016, which would give voters the power to rank candidates from favorite to least favorite, thanks in part to the League’s leadership.

3. Pushing Back against Big Money in Politics.  YES on 1 passed, strengthening our landmark, first-in-the-nation Clean Elections system and bringing more transparency and accountability to Maine elections.

2.  Nonpartisan.  The League continues to be one of a few nonpartisan, grassroots, political organizations working on behalf of all voters, and we are proud of this heritage.

1. Your voice.  Your vote.  It’s what makes democracy work and it’s why the League of Women Voters of Maine is here, working every day for you to make sure your vote counts, your voice is heard.

#GivingTuesday is propelled by those who believe that passion and commitment can make a difference.

We certainly believe that here at the League of Women Voters of Maine.

If you want to help us make a difference, please make a donation today to support our work.

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Jill Ward
President, League of Women Voters of Maine

Report from the Statehouse: SLG Work Session May 13

By Helen Hanlon

The session began with many motions, corrections, retractions of motions and confusion about what the Committee was being asked to decide today. It demonstrated to me – once again – the lack of preparation, communication and research in the development and drafting of some of these bills. So often it’s déjà vu all over again because many of these measures have been proposed and reworked for years. I get flashbacks of a comic strip from my youth called, “There Ought to Be a Law” and then envision a bunch of Mainers hard at work to make this a reality show.

After much debate about the process of today’s scheduled work, the Committee unanimously decided to form a 3-member subgroup to draft acceptable language that would allow the bills to pass rather than carrying them through into next session. I should note that Reps. Turner, Babbidge, and Evangelos seemed exceptionally thoughtful and practical throughout today’s work sessions.

 

LD857 (An Act To Prohibit Public Endorsement of Candidates for Office By County Employees and Elected Officials)

Debate continued into the bill discussion… with questions about the rationale for legislating an issue that is probably covered by existing rules and regulations in State, County and Departmental entities. The Committee was unsure how to proceed after Rep. Evangelos stated that he felt there was a conflict at issue since they had been asked to decide on the popular election of  an Attorney General (LD743) and to weigh in on LD857.

It was proposed that Committee vote ONTP with a letter asking the Secretary of State to review existing regulations for any conflicts or loopholes, but Rep. Evangelos made the sensible suggestion that the Chair and Co-chair simply send a letter seeking advice from the Sec. of State on how or if to proceed. Phew!

 

LD 1354 (An Act To Improve The Administrative Procedure Act)

This bill repeals a requirement that rules be approved for form and legality by the Attorney General and adds a requirement that rules be submitted to the Attorney General for advice as to form and legality. It changes a statutory provision regarding the taking of private property and notice requirements; allows for electronic submission of certain rule-making information; and enacts a provision that allows an agency to choose to incorporate by reference certain amendments to a code, standard, rule or regulation.

Rep. Martin forcefully maintained that there should be no change to the existing process and suggested the bill stemmed from the “Governor’s major heartburn with the Attorney General.”  Rep. Turner, however, felt that they “should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.” She urged the Committee to work on parts of the bill that made sense and keep provisions 3, 4, 5, 6.

On the ONTP motion, the vote was split 6-6 with one absent.

 

Report from the Statehouse: Tax Committee April 23

Nothing’s for Certain Except Taxes and Those Who Hate Them

By Helen Hanlon

The Joint Standing Committee on Taxation was a new venue for me and a new cast of characters. Despite what would seem to be a rather dull topic, the proceedings were highly entertaining – and informative. The Chair is my State Senator, Earle McCormick, who appeared to be very efficient and professional. The Co-Chair is the aptly named Rep. Adam Goode (a very engaging young man, pleasant in every way and the clerk made a point of saying what a total delight he is).

I thought this would be a hotly contested issue with a packed room. Not so – there was no one there, and only two people (including myself) testified. Taxation may not be a glamorous committee but it was still a very interesting day getting to know these Legislators and this Committee.

The Public Hearing started late because of a very late Senate Session. There was some grumbling among the members about a late session the night before and what fools they are to be embroiled in this legislative business (I didn’t say a word…). However, I was intrigued by Rep. Bickford of Auburn, who bears an uncanny resemblance (IMO) to our Governor, Paul LePage (though scaled-down in size and perhaps temperament).

That’s the background scene at the Tax Committee, now onto the bills…

LD409 (An Act to Lower the Individual Income tax Incrementally to Zero)

Introduced by Rep. O’Connor of Berwick, who explained that she’s never seen a tax she liked and is on a one-woman mission to undermine them. Apparently she has already introduced a few other tax-related, as well. She readily admitted that this LD409 was a dead as a doornail but she presented it anyway.

No one testified in favor of LD409.

Testimony Against:

  • LWVME – The League has long been in favor of income tax and was instrumental in implementing the tax in the 1960’s. Our testimony included some historical context, including a quote from a League member from Auburn (Ahem, Rep. Bickford!) who said, the income tax places “the burden where it belongs on those most able to pay.”[i]    NOTE: You can find all our testimony here. 
  • A citizen testified against the bill and encouraged the Committee to look at corporate taxes.
  • Senator Chris Johnson came by later and apologized for not being available to also oppose LD409. (So not really testimony – more drive-by opinion)

For some strange reason I decided to stay for other Bills (none of them on the League’s hit parade this year). A few more folks trickled in. Here’s the synopsis:

Bills about supporting the film industry, and then, LD1287 (An Act to Ensure Tax Expenditures Create High Quality Jobs) brought out the Chamber and small business cadre, along with the Dept. of Labor.

This last bill was of interest because of the recent Portland Press Herald report on Cate Street Capital’s multi-million tax credits related to Maine paper mills. Rep. Bickford noted he’d been on the Committee when this issue first arose but, he said, Maine Legislators aren’t sophisticated lawyers and did the best they could, never expecting such shenanigans. Some members reported hearing from constituents who were appalled at the waste of tax dollars.

I may be wrong, but no one seemed particularly outraged, nor inclined to fix this.

Senator Chris Johnson reported how he’d drafted this Bill months prior to the PPH report. His concern grew out of his own family’s experience with getting the raw end of the deal with employers who take the tax credits and who aren’t accountable to provide good quality jobs. Not, as he put it, jobs we must subsidize. At this point, Rep. Bickford made an outrageous comment about “employees who just aren’t good enough.” There were moments of dead silence in the room before the proceedings resumed.

I was really impressed with a young man (everyone is young to me) from the Maine Center for Economic Policy who testified about the over $30 million routinely given with neither transparency nor accountability (according to the 2014 Comprehensive Evaluation of Maine’s Economic Incentive Programs Report).

And then came the Chamber, Business Associations, etc.

It was after 4pm when I left and I hadn’t planned to stay as long as I did. I learned a lot, though – and was happy to know that Maine people still has a few champions out there…

 

[i] Bangor Daily News, February 19, 1976