Our View: Deleting records will wreck the public trust

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When the Legislature’s various standing committees hold formal meetings, like public hearings and work sessions on proposed legislation, audio of those meetings is recorded and streamed live.

This feature allows the public, many who cannot travel to the State House from great distances on weekdays, to listen in while lawmakers consider and amend the bills that may become law. And, if they miss the livestream, members of the public can request access to the recordings.

On Tuesday, for the second time in just over a year, the State House Facilities Committee will hear a proposal to delete these audio recordings as a matter of routine. In other words, destroy valuable public records.

This is not just a bad idea, it’s bad policy.

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And, it’s not just bad policy, it’s an expensive option for taxpayers.

Maine permanently archives recordings of discussions held on the floor of the House and Senate chambers, but the real work of drafting bills isn’t done on these floors. It is done in committee rooms, with public testimony and then wide-ranging debate to accept, amend or defeat thousands of bills. This is the forum where opponents and proponents argue proposed law, and where lawmakers can then spend hours discussing statutory language, often sentence by sentence, to consider the anticipated benefits or possible complications of each proposal.

It is, in more general terms, where the real work of the Legislature is done.

We’re currently able to access audio because the state contracts with Sliq Media to record committee meetings, from which the audio is immediately streamed. Once broadcast, the audio is archived for public access.

Here’s the expensive part: If these recordings are to be deleted, Maine will have to renegotiate its contract with Sliq Media — and pay an additional charge to delete records. So, it will cost taxpayers more to delete these recordings than to simply leave them be.

The push to delete these records is purportedly to protect the privacy of people who offer testimony at public hearings and who may not realize they’re being recorded. That’s a thin argument because testimony is offered to be heard, to change minds and affect outcomes.

It’s intended to be public.

But the real motivation behind this proposal, which is being propelled by Lisbon state Sen. Garrett Mason, is much more simple.

It’s to protect lawmakers who may say something during a committee meeting that they didn’t intend, or something inappropriate, that could come back to haunt them. Maybe future public scrutiny. Or an opponent using a misstatement as a political weapon.

Last year, when this proposal came forward, the suggested solution was to post signs in committee rooms informing the public that meetings are recorded. It’s a simple, very workable solution.

As for lawmakers’ concerns that what they say becomes a permanent record and may be used to remind voters of stands they’ve taken, what of it? What lawmakers say in committee is the first step in transforming a bill into statute, and the discussion that leads to — or defeats — a new law is of keen public interest.

So is a lawmaker’s veracity, character and willingness to stand for what they’ve said in public.

The most troublesome aspect of this move is that the proposal is not in the form of a bill. It will never come up for public hearing. The public does not get a chance to weigh in.

The Facilities Committee will simply pass its recommendation along to the full Legislative Council — which is scheduled to meet Thursday — for consideration.

Last year when this came up, the Legislative Council rejected the idea 9-0. If it emerges from Facilities and rises to the Council level again, we urge the Council to reject it — again.

And again and again as many times as necessary.

The real work of the Legislature happens in committee rooms, and right now Maine, like most states, makes an audio recording of that work. Deleting that record is no different than erasing history.

Bad idea.

Bad policy.

Bad for Maine.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

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