Opinion: ‘I applaud anyone who makes a good faith inquiry into the way public officials are making decisions’

Freedom of Access Act requests fundamental to healthy government

Posted:  Wednesday, December 20, 2017 - 5:00am
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The public’s right to information about government activities lies at the heart of a democratic government, and in principle, we all tend to accept this as true. In practice however, it's not always so easy for government officials to accept that the public may ask to see things that we don't feel they have any good reason to be interested in. 

It only took a few months of being on the Camden Select Board for me to be notified that my email account was part of the scope of documents requested under a Maine Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request, and I was surprised to note in myself a split second of defensiveness. My emails, even the ones I had written hastily when I was frustrated, tired, or confused, were all part of the public record and that was that. 

Almost immediately though, I was happy to be reminded that there are people out there who care enough about these seemingly small issues to be willing to go to the trouble of reading through often dry and repetitive government email exchanges.

I have nothing to hide, but that's not to say it's impossible that I may have made a comment or two that I would change now. I try very hard to keep Select Board related exchanges confined to my town email account, so there are a lot of emails that I've received and written that now form part of the public record on any given topic.

It was a great reminder to do what I try to do anyway and be careful to only say and write things that I'd be comfortable having the world read.

I also felt it could be a nice reminder for the citizens who right me with comments or grievances. When these exchanges are mostly public, we all work harder to communicate at our best, private citizens and government officials alike. 

This is exactly as it was intended to be and exactly as it should be.

The greatest political problem we face at the local level, in my opinion, is disengagement, so I applaud anyone who makes a good faith inquiry into the way public officials are making decisions.

At the town level, we have many committee members who have publicly and privately clashed with the Select Board and town employees on a wide array of issues. Sometimes these disagreements and concerns have turned into Freedom of Access requests for public documents and emails. Sometimes the requests become a topic of public conversation and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the people who file them officially are not the only ones involved in reviewing them. All of this is irrelevant anyway. The public has a right to view public documents for any reason or for no reason. 

I refuse to be offended by anyone who needs to dig deeper in order to trust that things are as they should be, and our town committees, while sometimes cantankerous, are stronger for the fact that no one needs to have warm feelings toward the Select Board or the town manager in order to serve. Sometimes citizens, and yes, committee members, have to question whether the town or other public body has responded in the transparent and comprehensive manner that is required by law. As a Select Board member I can already tell you that the town's process for responding to these requests could use improvement. Please feel free to contact me with questions and concerns.  

Sometimes things are done the way they should be done and sometimes there are areas of concern. Raising the question, requesting further information, and even stating your disagreements or allegations publicly or privately is part of your right and our democracy depends on the fact that some people are willing to do it. 

My point here is that the Freedom of Access Act is a sacred thing and the people who invoke it are, for the most part to be commended, not condemned. Whether we agree with the merits of their inquiries or not is really quite irrelevant and I hope to remind myself of this even when it's difficult, which I'm sure it will be at times. 

As a community, I hope we always reserve places at the table for those people who are likely to be disagreeable or even disruptive. I've found that the people who I disagree with most strongly on one issue often turn out to have the best contributions in other areas, and even when they don't, we seldom gain anything by excluding them from the conversation. 

Filing a FOAA or encouraging someone else to do so is not an attack on the system or the people who run it. It's actually an essential part of what makes the system work at all. 

Alison McKellar sits on the Camden Select Board