Wednesday, February 27, 2013

“Freedom isn’t free!”


Hell; in Brunswick, it isn’t even affordable.

The title above is a reminder that the American experiment, based on personal liberty and Government by consent of the governed, carries with it a cost to maintain those ideals.

As long as we’re into tried and true bromides, we might as well roll out “all politics is local.”

This post combines the two, more or less, at least as our idiosyncratic intellect sees it.

About six months ago, we posted this item, which we hope you will re-read to provide context for this post.  It talks of Brunswick School Superintendent Paul Perzanoski’s memo to his staff back then.

A related post can be found here.  It’s amazing how soon we forget what transpired in ‘the public square,’ even just slight months ago.

At that time, we submitted a “Freedom of Access” request to the School Department that read as follows:

To: James Grant, Brunswick School Board Chair

cc: School Board Members; School Superintendent

Subject: Freedom of Access Act Request (13 M.R.S.A. § 401 et seq.)

Date: 10 September 2012

From: Pem Schaeffer

Inspired by School Board Member Michelle Small’s thoughts on transparency in a column published last year (attached), I hereby request that the following documents be made available for my inspection:

1) Any and all School Board, School Department, and School Administration documents, including emails, memos, and any other forms of written communications that contain any of the words governor, LePage, governor’s office, Bowen, or legislature, and dated beginning 1 December 2010 up to the present.

2) Superintendent Paul Perzanoski’s contract(s) and all related performance reviews.

3) Any drafts of the August 17, 2012 Perzanoski memo to staff in which he criticized the governor.

4) Any and all School Board, School Department, and School Administration documents, including emails, memos, and any other forms of written communications containing the words Schaeffer (or any version thereof,) or Other Side blog (or any version thereof) dated from June 1, 2009 up to the present.

5) Copies of any past or present contracts with Systems in Sync of East Thetford, VT, and any written communications, including emails, related thereto.

I further request that you direct the Superintendent to provide the financial impact data of the 102 position cuts that were discussed in presentations made by him and Board Member Rich Ellis in budget presentations this spring, as he said he would in an email dated April 19, 2012 (attached.)

Documents may be made available for inspection electronically, and I will provide a flash (thumb) drive to do so when the items have been compiled. Depending on the results of the inspection, I may request copies of certain documents, and am prepared to pay for such services.

Please advise when the documents are ready to be inspected.

Thank you,

Pem Schaeffer


Michelle Small’s column read as follows:

Don’t cast a cloud over ‘Sunshine Week’

Wednesday March 16th, 2011

Michelle A. Small
Brunswick Times Record
March 15, 2011

Gov. Paul LePage has recently come under fire in connection with his formation of a business advisory group. Organizations as varied as the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the Maine Heritage Policy Center are upset that the governor closed this group’s proceedings and records to the public. The irony is that Gov. LePage had just proclaimed March 13-19 as “Sunshine Week.”

Sunshine Week is a seven-day celebration of the importance of transparency in government and freedom of information. The event is always held during the week of James Madison’s birthday (March 16). Among the milestones celebrated are the federal Freedom of Information Act and the 50 separate state acts.

In Maine, the act is called the Freedom of Access Act (FOAA), 13 M.R.S.A. § 401 et seq. It requires that all public proceedings be open to the public; that public notice be given for all proceedings; and that public documents be available for inspection and copying.

Every meeting and every document at each level of government — state, county and municipal — is public unless there is a specific exception written in Maine law. The presumption is that the people’s business should be done in public.

Public proceedings are defined as “transactions of any functions affecting any or all citizens of the State.” They include legislative hearings, county commissioners’ meetings, town council meetings and school board meetings.

Notice of a public proceeding must be given “in ample time to allow public attendance.” This notice must be circulated in a manner “reasonably calculated” to inform people served by the government body of the proceeding.

Public documents are defined as “any written, printed or graphic matter or any mechanical or electronic data compilation from which information can be obtained.” They include meeting minutes, tax assessment records, financial statements, union contracts, correspondence and e-mail.

To request access to public documents, members of the public need only ask. If that does not work, they should file a written FOAA request. Examples are available at A government body must provide access to the documents within a “reasonable period of time.”

If a public official denies the request, ask to see the statute that makes the document unavailable to the public. If the official cannot point to a statute, ask to see a supervisor or an elected official. Requests may sometimes be denied because public officials do not fully understand FOAA.

All elected officials, including the governor, are required to complete training on the requirements of FOAA within 120 days of taking the oath of office. Many high-level public officials are also required to complete the training.

There are some exceptions to the Freedom of Access Act set forth in statute. Portions of public meetings may be held in executive session. That means that government bodies may privately discuss matters such as personnel issues, student suspensions, real estate transactions and labor negotiations.

Likewise, there are certain documents that are not available to the public. For example, documents related to labor negotiations, medical records, juvenile records and documents describing security plans are kept private.

Over the course of an eight-year cycle, the Legislature must review exceptions and determine if they are still necessary. According to the statute, each exception must be as “narrowly tailored” as possible.

Government bodies that violate FOAA are subject to fines of up to $500. A plaintiff who prevails in a lawsuit against a government body that violates FOAA may be awarded attorney’s fees and costs.

By executive order, Gov. LePage exempted his Business Advisory Council from application of FOAA. His action was permitted by an exception in the statute and was, therefore, within the letter of the law.

However, his action was not within the spirit of Sunshine Week, which emphasizes the importance of transparency in government. As a result of the executive order, members of Maine’s public will be denied access to the comments and recommendations of the Advisory Council.

Surely, this council will be engaged in conducting the people’s business. Members of the public should have access to proceedings and documents that will inevitably spawn legislation that affects Maine business.

Following criticism about the executive order, Gov. LePage was interviewed by MPBN and said, “National Sunshine Week — yeah, I know and I’m told there might be a storm.”

Maine’s public hopes the comment was truly a joke and that the LePage administration will honor the requirements of FOAA.

Michelle A. Small represents the League of Women Voters on the Board of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. She lives in Brunswick.

Now the good part.  Here’s the response to our request from Superintendent Perzanoski as posted on Scribd.

As you can see, his estimate for complying with our request ranges from $84,000 to $168,000.

So…as we said in the beginning, “freedom isn’t free.”  Frankly, we wonder whether the Super intends to pad the budget with funds earned by charging for information. 

Readers, of course, could always send us a check for two, three, four, or even five thousand dollars, which we promise to accumulate in a fund to pay for the information we requested.

And you can trust us on this, because we’re not like all the others.

Should you wonder why we’re only now getting around to posting on this turn of events from September of last year, all we can say is start your own blog, and at some point you’ll come to understand.

Or maybe you won’t, because you’re too busy protesting on Saturdays, or working to get our town councilors to apply pressure on the Federal Government for a Constitutional Amendment.


No comments:

Post a Comment