AUGUSTA – The Department of the Attorney General should establish an ombudsman to ease access to public records within public agencies, the Right to Know Advisory Committee has recommended to the state.

Part of the ombudsman’s duties would be to establish and coordinate a training course on public access laws that all elected officials would need to take within 90 days of taking office.

A bill to mandate the suggestions, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Simpson, was heard Wednesday in the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Several attorneys, residents and media representatives spoke in favor of LD 1822. There was no opposition.

In establishing the ombudsman position, the bill would also create a public access division within the department.

“The ombudsman is required to provide information and educational materials and programs to the public, as well as to public agencies and officials,” the bill reads.

Linda Pistner of the Office of the Attorney General supported the bill, citing the increase the office has seen in public records requests that came with the public’s increased awareness of the law.

“While the office does its best to respond to these inquiries from the public, we lack the resources needed to more efficiently and effectively assist the public,” she said.

Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said the position is necessary to make sure public records are obtained on request and open meetings remain open.

“It has been my experience, as a reporter seeking public documents, and as president of MFOIC responding to calls from the public for help, that most officials at the state and local level follow the law,” Leary testified. “When they don’t, in all but a few cases, it is because they don’t understand the law.”

Jeff Ham, executive director of the Maine Press Association, said the proposed ombudsman would be a valuable resource the state has never had.

“The ombudsman would give state, county, local and school officials a place to turn for help, and would give citizens a better option than calling local newspaper editors to complain,” Ham wrote in a statement. “The ombudsman could keep cases out of court by being authorized to access records that officials believe to be confidential, then making objective, neutral and well informed determinations on whether they should be released.”


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