LEWISTON — Is Dwight Hines a nuisance? Or is he an involved citizen?
It depends on whom you ask.
In the past year, Hines — a retired university professor who lives in Peru — has filed dozens of requests for public records under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act in the towns of Peru, Dixfield, Mexico, Rumford, Canton, Auburn and Turner.
He has followed these requests with letters and e-mails threatening state and federal investigations if towns don’t turn over the requested records.
In some of those towns, public officials have had enough.
Hines’ requests for a broad array of records have become so numerous and so demanding that officials say they can’t keep up, and working to satisfy his requests as quickly as possible is interfering with their ability to conduct the towns’ daily business.
Hines acknowledges that he makes a lot of public-access requests, but he says he’s defending democracy and promoting economic development.
And, he said, he’s never made a request for documents to be created. “I’ve not asked for anything other than to turn around and take something off the shelf,” he said.
When officials refuse to release or delay access to documents, Hines said he thinks “it’s more fear that they’ve done something or are going to look silly.”
“Openness is a sanitizer,” he said. “It’s like sunshine. It cleans things up.”
Hines said he has no plans to publish the results of his public-records compliance checks. He just wants to make sure public officials are following the law because, as a state, “we’re not going to have economic development or business development as we should if the records aren’t going to be open.”
Some public officials say he’s a public-access nuisance requester, and he’s not the only one in Maine.
A real problem
According to Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services for the Maine Municipal Association, “This is happening in at least 15 to 20 other towns, we would estimate. It’s a real problem.”
In Mexico early in the summer, Hines asked for access to the town’s insurance policies. According to Town Manager John Madigan, the municipal insurance policy file folder measures 1.5 inches thick, so Madigan “broke down the particulars of various policies” in an attempt to organize the information for Hines’ review.
On July 6, Hines asked for access to the town’s current federal and state grants, and for access to current municipal bonds.
Madigan said Hines stopped at the Town Office once after filing the second batch of requests, saw that Madigan was busy and said he’d be back later to view the files. As of last week, he had not returned to do that, Madigan said.
It’s frustrating, Madigan said, to have taken the time to respond to a FOAA request when the requester doesn’t return to collect the information.
“We run a skeleton crew here, especially in the summer,” he said. “I’m just too busy. I don’t have time.”
Hines made FOAA requests for access to Mexico Fire Department records, too, Chief Gary Wentzell said. They arranged to meet, Wentzell gave Hines a copy of the department’s entire operations and procedures manual. Wentzell said Hines could make whatever copies he needed and then return the book.
Wentzell’s response earned the fire department an “A” for compliance in Hines’ opinion, which Wentzell is certainly happy about, but he said he doesn’t think Hines is “being fair” to other departments.
“He’s kind of dwelling on FOAA, which is fine,” Wentzell said, “but we don’t really get paid for a lot of these hours we do and we try to do the best that we can do with the money that is available.”
As fire chiefs across northern Oxford County work to gather records to satisfy Hines’ requests, “it’s jeopardizing the hours that we need to do other things,” Wentzell said, including mandatory training and record-keeping.
Hines said he’s found that public officials “freak out” when he makes requests. “It’s surprising to me,” he said, “because the (public access) law has been around a long time.”
He believes part of the problem is that Maine media don’t make enough requests, and it’s been left to citizens to monitor and enforce adherence to FOAA.
“There’s a mentality among public officials,” he said, “that was not here in the 1970s. A defensiveness. It’s rude stuff. Bush league.”
According to Conrad, the media do make frequent FOAA requests, but he said media requests have “a specific, and potentially newsworthy, point.”
The nuisance citizen requesters who Conrad said are targeting municipalities are blanketing town officials with requests that have no apparent purpose.
Hines earned his Ph.D. from the University of Maine in Orono, but spent most of his university teaching career in Florida. He recently married a woman from Maine, and the two have spent summers in Maine and winters in Florida.
He has a reputation for pushing public access in Florida, too, and joining lawsuits to protect free speech.
He said Thursday that he and his wife have decided not to return to Florida, and will live in Maine full-time, where he will remain devoted to his battle to improve local public access.
In addition to his campaign to access public records, Hines is pushing various boards of selectmen to permit public input during their business meetings and has raised concerns about familial relationships between town employees and public officials, and the dual roles of town volunteers serving as elected officials.
He has devised a grading system for municipal compliance to FOAA, giving Canton, Peru and Dixfield each an “F.” Auburn, Mexico, Turner and Rumford earned “A's."
Hines said his grading system is a work in progress and is based on thoroughness and timeliness of a town’s response to his requests.
Peru earns an “F”
Since September 2010, Hines has made requests to Peru officials for access to insurance policies, municipal personnel policies, police incident call sheets, meeting minutes, complaints filed by citizens, property records and maps, assessment records in electronic form, budget documents, employee and volunteer rosters, FOAA request logs, training schedules, equipment purchases and other documents.
He has filed complaints with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, the Maine Attorney General’s Office and the Oxford County District Attorney’s office citing cases in which he didn’t receive requested records in the form requested or within the time requested.
He has also blogged about his efforts and his complaints against local officials on a national Freedom of Information Coalition list serve.
The complaints have been so pointed that the town considered warning its attorney that Hines “seems hell bent on filing” a lawsuit against the town.
Many of Hines’ letters to town employees and officials carry bold-faced warnings of “notice of legal action.”
On June 30, in a letter to Laurieann Milligan, then-chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, Hines awarded the Peru Fire Department an “F” for compliance with state law.
On June 8, Hines had requested access to fire department policies and procedures and fire Chief William Hussey arranged to meet with Hines on the evening of June 28.
Hines had wanted to meet closer to the June 8 date, but Hussey was not available, he said.
The morning of June 28, according to Hussey, he experienced some chest pain and went to the hospital, where he was treated for what doctors called a cardiac “event.”
While on his way to the hospital, Hussey called another member of the department and asked him to meet with Hines in Hussey’s place. Dan Carrier agreed, and met with Hines at the station.
Hines was not satisfied with the arrangement and was critical of the time he was allowed to view documents, which prompted the June 30 letter of complaint to Milligan.
Hussey said he believes one of the contributing factors of his heart ailment was the relentless pressure from Hines for department records.
“It upset me so much, it was one of the reasons I was in the hospital. I think my character was being slammed,” Hussey said. “We’ve tried everything in the world in Peru to get everything right.” Hussey said he finds Hines’ public criticisms harassing.
“He’s heartless,” Hussey said of Hines. “He has no compassion for anyone else or anyone else’s time.”
Hines disagrees, and says towns must make public access a priority equal to other municipal tasks.
Tim Holland, the current first selectman in Peru, says the town does make public access a priority. “Everything is open,” he said, but Hines is “trying to find something that’s not there” and making unfounded accusations of wrongdoing.
Holland, who is a full-time deputy with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office, said Hines’ bombardment of requests for information and demands to participate in business meetings “borders on harassment.”
Holland acknowledges Hines has every right to request public documents, and said town employees have gone out of their way to accommodate him, but Hines remains suspicious and accusatory.
On volunteer time
In Dixfield, fire Chief Scott Dennett said Hines verbally requested access to the department’s “documentation on policies and procedures” on June 7 and followed up with a written request dated June 8. Dennett met Hines at the station in mid-June to provide access to policy binders.
The chief estimated Hines may have been in the station for about 20 minutes, and said Hines asked whether the department had considered posting the policy manuals online.
Dennett, who fits his fire chief duties around a full-time job, said he explained to Hines that he has limited volunteer manpower available to him and they simply don’t have the time to convert paper records into e-records.
Days later, Dennett said, Town Manager Gene Skibitsky received a letter from Hines critical of Dennett’s compliance with FOAA, and even more critical of the department’s record-keeping.
On Thursday, Hines said he felt Dennett “stonewalled me totally,” refusing to give him access to multiple requested documents.
“These guys, the volunteer departments, are acting like they’re paranoid” when confronted with public access requests, Hines said. “These are public records,” he said, and should be turned over entirely and quickly.
In Dixfield, the Fire Department has been organized as a nonprofit company since 1893 and operates separately from the municipality. Even so, Dennett said he knows his records are public, including run sheets, policies and other documentation.
“I don’t begrudge the guy asking for information, ” he said. But, Dennett said, the vagueness of the requests and the volume of information Hines is requesting at the speed that he is requesting it is “creating havoc for us.”
Hines is not sympathetic.
He said that when he went to the station to view the requested records, the station was damp, there was no place to sit down and he had trouble reading while standing up and trying to take notes. According to Dennett, Hines was set up to view the manuals on a bar-style kitchen counter at the station.
Hines’ chief complaints about records at the Dixfield station was that policies had not been updated since 2001 or 2005, the data on numbers and types of calls listed online had not been updated since 2009 and the department is missing a policy against sexual harassment.
In his letter to Skibitsky, Hines wrote that online fire incident data reports were not current which “indicates the best practices are not being followed by Dixfield Fire Department.”
Dennett, in defending his department, said that for Hines to “assume that the summary of calls listed on the Web page is the manner in which we submit our run data to the Fire Marshal’s Office is a bit bizarre. Run data is submitted electronically from our FirePrograms software. FOAA requires records to be accessible to the public, but there is no specific requirement that they be accessible online, he said.
In addition, Dennett said he and other volunteers are subject to municipal policies on harassment, so there’s no need for a redundant policy at the station, but he acknowledged that department-specific policies should be reviewed more often.
Hines recommended to Skibitsky that Dennett delegate some of his record-keeping duties to others in the department, because “right now, I don’t think these guys have good enough records to know what they’re doing. I think it’s a lot of laziness.”
Maine is anti-business
In Canton, Hines awarded the town and its volunteer fire department an “F” grade on government, he wrote in a June 23 letter to Town Clerk Kathy Hutchins.
Hines was seeking access to training policies and records from the Fire Department and access to documents on outstanding municipal bonds from the Town Office.
In awarding the failing grade, Hines wrote, “I’ve had much better responses to my public records requests in fire departments in Third-World countries.”
He went on to say that he intended to report Canton’s lack of transparency to investigative reporters and editors at Forbes magazine, which ranked Maine 50th among business-friendly states.
“It is good that the current Legislature in Maine passed legislation to make Maine more attractive to businesses, and the governor has signed the legislation, but it is sad, very sad, that Canton is acting anti-business by refusing to comply with Maine FOAA requests,” he said.
According to Hutchins, the town did provide what documents it could to Hines as quickly as it could, but Hines found those efforts unsatisfactory.
Is this harassment?
Departments that have been scrambling to meet Hines’ requests say that the barrage borders on harassment.
Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant has heard these complaints, but said “as much as you dislike some of the man’s requests, it appears from what I’ve seen, he’s fallen well within Maine's public access act.”
Gallant acknowledged that some of Hines’ requests are time-consuming, and he’s aware of many of the active requests because Hines copies him on e-mail correspondence to various town officials.
“There have been some mistakes,” Gallant said of officials’ reactions to Hines’ requests. “I see where one agency asked the guy for identification,” which the law does not require, but, “I really can’t go after this guy for harassment, even though they think it’s borderline harassment.”
According to Gallant, Maine statute defines harassment as engaging in conduct with “the intent to harass, torment or threaten another person.” He’s not aware that Hines’ activities have risen to tormenting or threatening another person, and “nobody has officially asked for an investigation.”
According to Conrad, in towns where nuisance FOAA requesters are keeping public officials busy, “the requests almost never uncover anything. They come from people who are highly suspicious of all forms of government, to put it gently. They think they know something’s fishy at town hall. But, they’re wrong, and they are wasting taxpayer money by causing already strapped municipal staffs to spend countless hours on wild FOAA goose chases.”
“It’s very disruptive to small towns,” Conrad said. “The requests are repetitive, often redundant, and they take many, many hours to sort out. Some towns have seen 80 to 100 FOAA requests from the same individual or small group of people over a one-year period.”
In the most extreme situations, it’s “not about a citizen legitimately seeking government information on a certain subject," Conrad said. "They’re using a state law to abuse town officials and employees ... These kinds of harassing, repetitive abuses of the state FOAA law are not why the law exists.”
In addition to Hines' public access campaign in Western Maine, other towns that have sought advice from MMA regarding so-called nuisance FOAA requesters include Falmouth, Poland and Union.