Our freedom of information

By now virtually everyone has not only heard about the Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request made by The Bangor Daily News seeking to obtain information about holders of concealed weapons permits but has formed an opinion about it.

I have plenty to say about the foolishness of a news organization attempting to step out on that particular limb without a very clear, very detailed, very pre-emptive explanation of what it is doing and why.

Much more transparent than simply, quietly putting the reason on the filed request. The reaction that happened should have been expected.

I also have plenty to say with regard to the unfair impugning of the motivations of good editors and journalists who were simply seeking to obtain information for research related to stories on domestic violence. Even if you consider Bangor Daily News staff left of center, assuming such motivations based on your worst fear is inappropriate.

I could examine issues like this for weeks, but right now the debate is already raging about what permit information should be publicly available via FOAA and what information should be private. That debate is being handled.

However, there is something much more problematic about FOAA that deserves to be talked about. In short, the entire system itself is a mess.

Let’s start with what FOAA is supposed to be: a vanguard against corruption, waste, fraud and inappropriate collusion between government and the private sector. Sunlight and transparency are the best antidote for smokey back rooms, quid pro quos and all the worst parts of government.

But there is such a thing as getting too much information and getting it too easily.

The frustration is really two-fold. Technologically, state and municipal governments in Maine are so antiquated and unequipped to collect and store data, let alone retrieve it easily, that the process for fulfilling requests takes 10 times longer than it actually should.

The second is that right now, cities and towns across Maine are being absolutely overwhelmed by what can only be described as nuisance requests by an avalanche of people with a lot of time on their hands.

I spoke with former Bangor City Council Chairman Cary Weston, who confirmed this problem.

Weston relayed to me his frustration with the never-ending requests, which consume an immense amount of time to fulfill in good faith. Employees who should be working on the people’s business by serving the public, looking for efficiencies, negotiating good deals for the city, responding to constituent needs and generally supporting the community are instead weighed down by time consuming and, quite frankly, useless requests.

The irony is that, while their intentions are good, many of these very same requests are being made by members of the tea party wing of the Republican Party, due to a desire to uncover waste, fraud and abuse. But instead of making government more efficient and responsive, they often do the exact opposite.

If we are going to place this very justifiable burden on our system, we have a responsibility to make it as easy for everyone involved as possible.

My suggestion for fixing the system is pretty simple: technology and demonstrated community interest in information.

Maine desperately needs to drag itself into the second decade of the 2000s and upgrade the way it collects and shares information. It would not only make FOAA requests easier to comply with, but it would make state and local government infinitely more responsive to constituents. The systems currently in place around Maine are an absolute embarrassment.

More importantly, though, I think it is time that the bar that must be cleared to make a request for information is raised, albeit slightly. Right now all a person needs to do is fire off an email with a demand for information, and a government body must drop everything to respond.

Institute some level of support, perhaps a very minor petition signature requirement that has to be fulfilled before any request can be made.

This would allow for citizens to continue to request all the information they could ever want but not without taking at least a little time to think and organize some of their fellow citizens around the idea. Exempt news-gathering organizations, and I think we would be in a much better place than we are today.

It should always be our mission to force government to be as ethical and transparent as possible, but we as citizens have a similar duty to arm our government with the tools required to meet that demand.

That is a standard not currently being met, and that has to change.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.