Friday, November 10, 2017

Freedom of Access, or Freedom of Asking?


If you follow politics and governmental behavior at all,  you’re probably familiar with something called the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law that allows private parties to ask for information of all sorts from federal agencies.  The law has enough “loopholes” in it to make sure the government agency is able to refuse or delay responding to such requests in a way that renders them essentially useless.  Or to require legal action in the way of lawsuits that demand a response in compliance with the law.

While the “good intention” of the law was to put the public in a priority position for seeing what their government is up to, the simple fact is that the government can tie you up in knots if it wants to, and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it.  Especially if you don’t have endless cash to spend on attorneys to press your request in court.

Here in Maine, we have something that is similarly intentioned, called the Freedom of Access Act.


We’ve made attempts to take advantage of this act over the years.  Most recently, we’ve requested a number of different documents from the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA), an entity of Maine State Government subject to the act.

With each successive request, NNEPRA’s responsiveness has, shall we say, become less and less enthusiastic.  Furthermore, we’ve expended well over $100 for their services in finding the documents we’ve asked for, and reproducing them.

In this day and age of computerization, this is a bit bizarre.  Nearly every meaningful business document is generated digitally on a computer, and maintained and archived on computers.  Precious little is still created and maintained solely on paper, and stored in physical file cabinets.

At the moment, that is simply background.  Our point in this post is to tell you about our latest request, and the response so far.  Specifically, the request has to do with the Downeaster’s Brunswick Layover Facility operations, as described in this post:

and our subject op-ed that ran in today’s local newspaper.

On October 14th, we sent this message to NNEPRA’s designated contact person for FOAA requests:

Ms. Douglass:

Please confirm whether or not the east end access doors and adjacent ladder tracks at the Brunswick MLF are being used routinely, as standard operating procedure, for all Downeaster train movements between the facility and the Brunswick in-town station.  To be clear, that means trains heading in either direction.

If this is not the case, please explain why.


Pem Schaeffer


We received not a word of response to this request.  Not an acknowledgement of receipt, or an estimate of when we could expect a response.  And how much it might cost us.

After two weeks without a word, we submitted this follow-up message, copying cognizant officials.  John Melrose is the Chairman of NNEPRA’s Board of Directors.

To: Marina Douglass

CC: Patricia Quinn, Commissioner David Bernhardt, John Melrose

Oct 29 at 9:39 PM

Ms. Douglass

I submitted the above request to you two weeks ago, and have yet to receive a response of any sort.

I did not ask for any documents to be searched for, compiled, or reproduced.  I simply asked straightforward questions about routine train operations.

Please advise when I can expect answers to these questions.

Thank you,

Pem Schaeffer


Two weeks later, the situation is the same, or maybe not.  It’s now been four weeks without a single word in response.


At this point, then, we’re viewing the state law as the Freedom to Ask Act.  It hardly makes sense to consider it a Freedom of Access Act, at least as far as NNEPRA is concerned. 

We didn’t ask for any documents or mountains of historical data.  We asked, as we see it, a straightforward question calling for a straightforward response.  A response that any number of NNEPRA staffers should have been able to provide in a one page memo in no more than a week.

Perhaps one of our readers can offer an explanation as to why their response has not been forthcoming.  We have our own suspicions, of course.


And we’re filing it in the same folder as why no-one holds them accountable for spending nearly $10 million on a rail siding that doesn’t do anything that an existing siding a few miles away can already do. 

We can think of other suitable gestures with one’s digits that most would understand, but we’re trying to run a clean show here.

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