Brenda Kielty, a Freeport resident and lawyer, was named the state’s first public access ombudsman earlier this year. Mainebiz spoke to Kielty about the new role, which she will take on later this year from her current post as a special assistant to Maine’s attorney general. The following is an edited transcript.
Mainebiz: ‘Ombudsman’ is a unique title in Maine government. How do you interpret that role?
Kielty: [In Sweden,] the [first] ombudsman was there to represent the interest of the public and bring complaints about the way that the government was behaving. In this case, my statutory authority is very specific in that my authority is to look at freedom of access issues….
Mainebiz: The position was approved in 2007 but not funded until this year. Why is that?
Kielty: Since we haven’t tracked the data, it’s really not possible to say whether there are more complaints, but we can say that the world of information has become more complex… and the issues around freedom of access are only going to grow. We have a very extensive Right to Know Law and we have over 300 exceptions. And so, and those exceptions are tailored to specific situations where there’s a privacy interest or security interest that really does need to be protected. And you can see that it’s a complex area of law…
Mainebiz: Do you expect to set precedents and do some rulemaking around this law?
Kielty: I don’t have a rulemaking capacity per se, but I will be able to issue opinions and will be able to publicize and persuade publicly, but my recommendations are not binding.
Mainebiz: The governor met with resistance in trying to keep his ‘working papers’ secret last year. When issues like that emerge, where will your work fit in?
Kielty: I suspect that if a question like that came up, I would be attending those meetings and giving an opinion and participating in those discussions, but my role would not necessarily be to advocate for the executive branch. The position has to be not only independent but nonpartisan and that’s very important. So, I don’t personally perceive that I’m going to have an issue with that — I’m a trained mediator, so I have experience being able to walk that line and see both sides. If there’s one thing that I’m advocating for, it’s the freedom of access law – it’s really about the law for me. So, if I have an opinion that’s unpopular, that’s just the way it’s going to be.
Mainebix: In 2010, a request was made for e-mail addresses of all residents who purchased hunting or fishing licenses that could have been used commercially. What do you think of that?
Kielty: Well, that’s a matter of your privacy expectation and that’s a huge issue for individuals now. Look at how compromised our personal information is … do we want government to – or, do we expect government to protect something like that? There have been recently large requests for large pieces of data that were then intended to be used for business purposes and that’s allowable under the law — the questions now are ‘Do those records exist?’ and ‘Are they in a format that can be shared?’ You know, the typical FOAA questions. But in terms of asking why you want the records, that just is not part of the law. And that may, if it hasn’t already, crystallize as a proposed exception to allow that information to stay confidential, but the exceptions really do derive from real situations…