Police officers are charged with enforcing laws written to protect society. It’s frustrating, then, when officers do not obey laws designed to protect public access to government.

In an organized test late last year, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition asked volunteers to go to hundreds of municipal offices to request access to documents that are public by statute. In one-third of all visits to police departments, the volunteers were denied information that should have been available to them.

There is a remedy now before the Legislature to require police to adopt policies and train officers to lawfully respond to requests for public information. It’s a bill supported by the Maine FOI Coalition, the Maine Press Association, the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Civil Liberties Union. It is opposed by the State Police and Maine Chiefs of Police Association because they believe it punishes two-thirds of police departments for transgressions of the remaining third.

The legislation is not punitive.

Two-thirds of police departments have policies in place and/or have trained their officers on public access issues already, and they did it voluntarily and absorbed the nominal cost. These departments see public access as vital to public service. They will not be punished because they are already doing what L.D. 249 will require and can be held up as models of public service.

It’s the remaining one-third of departments the Legislature must force to comply with public access laws, which may include imposing fines for violations.

We find it curious that police would oppose legislation that is designed to assist them in their interaction with the public.

This is a bill that will reduce confusion about what information is public and what is confidential. It is a bill that guarantees everyone equal access to public information, no matter where they live by requiring accountability from police.

We urge lawmakers to support this legislation.

Public notice
Last week in Auburn, the City Council and School Committee met in a joint workshop session to talk about the budget.

The city posted notice of the meeting on a calendar of events listing at City Hall the day before the meeting.

If you didn’t happen to visit City Hall that Tuesday and see the notice, you would have almost no way of knowing that these departments planned to meet to talk about potential layoffs and program cuts, topics of clear interest to taxpayers.

The city followed the letter of Maine’s Freedom of Access law that requires government to “post” notice of public meetings. Auburn certainly “announced” the meeting, but in no meaningful way to keep the public informed.

The Council and School Committee share such concern about the budget that they have agreed to meet jointly at least once a month during the budget process to make sure council and committee members remain informed.

That these groups are communicating is good and will help the budget process, but we urge the city to make more of an effort to inform residents when it meets to discuss spending their money.

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