Shielding governor’s “working papers” from public a bad idea, Center’s president testifies

The Center’s president, Jay Davis, submitted testimony Thursday protesting the move by Gov. Paul LePage to exempt his “working papers” from the state’s Freedom of Access Act. Here’s a copy of that testimony:

 

Testimony of Jay Davis, President of the Board

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

Before the Joint Standing Committee on Judiciary

February 23, 2012

Re: L.D. 1805

“An Act To Implement Recommendations of the Right To Know Advisory Committee Concerning a Public Records Exception for Proposed Legislation, Reports and Working Papers of the Governor”

 

Members of the Committee:

I am Jay Davis, president of the board of directors of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.  The Center is a nonprofit investigative news service providing independent reporting to Maine citizens about their government and elections. The Center is non-partisan; takes no editorial positions; and does not associate itself with any interest groups except professional journalistic organizations.  Our stories are published in 25 newspapers from the St. John Valley to York County, and on our own website, pinetreewatchdog.org.

Government serves the people. That is why Maine has appropriately mandated that the records of its public servants and their actions must be open and available to the public. The records don’t belong to government officials, they belong to the people they serve. By having free and open access to government records, the people can hold their government accountable.

We present this testimony because journalists have traditionally been the agents of the people in this exercise in accountability. We have the skills to ferret out those public records, or the lawyers to help us demand them. We do this work as repayment for the protections we have been extended in the First Amendment. Those protections were granted to us by Founding Fathers who understood the crucial role of a free press in helping citizens hold government accountable. Without fear or favor, we ask, on behalf of the people, whether you, our elected officials, have played by the rules and worked in the public interest.

The bill to create a “public records exception for proposed legislation, reports and working papers of the governor” is misnamed, we believe. Those working papers do not belong to the governor. They belong to the people. And the move to exempt them from the broad goals of the state’s Freedom of Access Act is anti-democratic, because it takes power away from the people of Maine.

While we understand that it is inconvenient at times to be subjected to such scrutiny, and while we know that seemingly frivolous Freedom of Access requests can and have been filed, that inconvenience and annoyance is part of the price we pay for our democracy.

Please exercise your wisdom and remember that you, the Executive and all of our other elected officials answer to the people of this state. You have already, and we believe, wrongly, exempted your own working papers from public scrutiny. Please do not compound that wrong by further restricting the public’s right to know what happens under the Statehouse dome.

Thank you.

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