Responsibility for our own correspondence

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On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee voted to pass LD 1082 on to the Legislature for approval. It’s a bill that would make personal information a constituent chooses to include in any communication with an elected official confidential.

What that means, specifically, is any information about a person’s health, credit, character or finances.

The bill would also make information in communications confidential if that information “would be confidential if it were in the possession of another public agency or official” at any level of government.

Passing this idea into law is a bad idea for a couple of very good reasons.

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The first of which is that constituents write to elected officials for one reason: to sway officials to do something on their behalf in the official’s capacity as a cog in the government machine. The public has a very real right to know why public officials take the actions they do and shielding information used to couch requests that prompt government action is bad public policy.

The better thing, which a lot of government offices already do, is to educate — perhaps even warn — constituents that correspondence is a public record and leave it up to the sender to take responsibility for what they choose to include in their correspondence.

It’s a matter of expecting personal responsibility over instituting government baby-sitting.

The second reason this bill is a bad idea is that it places a terrible burden on the folks receiving correspondence. It would require public employees and officials to know every regulation and policy of every alphabet-soup government agency that carries an exception to public access laws so these officials can, when required, determine what content in communications is public record and what is not.

This would become a requirement from the Blaine House right down to the tiny Woodstock Town Office, and everything and everyone in between.

In Woodstock, longtime Town Manager Vern Maxfield was not aware of the legislation or the Judiciary Committee’s support when asked about it Friday.

His response? “Oh. My.”

He hasn’t read every single Department of Health and Human Services regulation to know what information is confidential, nor is he familiar enough with the thousands of exceptions in state and federal environmental, health, business and finance laws to make decisions with any certainty about what is confidential information and what is not.

“It would just make the job a little more hard,” he said. “It would be one more grain of sand in the shoe,” with incalculable costs in time and money, especially if the town turns to a lawyer to review its correspondence to parse each word by its public or confidential status.

“I hate to see it come to that,” Maxfield said.

So do we.

The bill, as it stands, carries no fiscal note. It should, and when it does, the financial impact will be enormous.

Government officials say they are overburdened by Freedom of Access Act requests now, and to add this layer of intensive scrutiny to every slip of correspondence that travels between constituents and officials will bring that work to a grind.

That’s not serving the public. And, it places a terrible burden on Vern Maxfield and his peers in public service.

We understand that many people put sensitive personal information in their correspondence to public officials, but it’s their choice to do so. And they’re doing it to make their case for government action on public policies and spending that affect us all.

The Legislature must reject this costly and burdensome bill.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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