A legislative study committee is looking for ways to improve public access to records.

AUGUSTA (AP) – A maximum fee for copying public records is among the recommendations of a legislative study committee looking for ways to improve access to public records in Maine.

Recommendations of the 16-member study panel, whose members include lawmakers, journalists, public officials, police and citizen representatives, will be drafted into legislation.

The Committee to Study Compliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Laws was formed after a statewide audit of public records last year showed a lack of compliance with Maine’s 45-year-old public access and public records laws.

One problem that came to light was the wide range of fees public agencies have been charging for copies of public records. The committee wants a maximum of 20 cents per page allowed, except in cases where the charges are already set by law.

The study committee also concluded after its records audit that a lack of knowledge about Maine’s law was also a problem, said Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and a member of the study panel.

That led to a recommendation calling for more educational efforts by associations that represent public agencies.

The study committee was surprised when staff research found more than 400 specific exemptions to the laws scattered throughout Maine statues. The group wants all exemptions to Maine’s freedom of access laws consolidated in one place in the state statues, and a process to review all exemptions to the laws over a 10-year period.

Another important recommendation is to further study the complex issues of electronic access to records, said Rep. Ted Koffman, D-Bar Harbor, who co-chaired the panel.

The group is also recommending that the attorney general provide mediation and training assistance on freedom of access laws to the public and local public entities.

“The committee worked long and hard, and did an excellent job of balancing the legitimate privacy interests of public employees, students and others with the public’s right of access to documents and proceedings,” said Harry Pringle, representative of the Maine School Management Association on the committee.

He said one of the most important recommendations was a unanimous one calling for the law to be clarified to require that public documents be provided within a “reasonable” time.

Some of the recommendations were not unanimous, and some, such as the proposal to award attorney’s fees in lawsuits over public access, were contentious.

On the Net:

Full report through the Maine Legislature Web site: http://www.state.me.us/legis/opla/reports2.htm

AP-ES-01-25-04 1556EST

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