Public access lost in Bethel
Bethel is not such a far cry from Rumford after all, at least in terms of adherence to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act and respect for the public’s fundamental right to know.
Last month, the Bethel Board of Selectmen twice met without posting the meetings, a requirement under Maine law, mimicking a similar move by Rumford selectmen in April to convene illegal meetings.
Bethel then outdid the shenanigans in Rumford by deleting public documents from at least one municipal e-mail account.
Over a period of months, as Bethel Town Manager Scott Cole has prepared to vacate his post, he has been deleting e-mail correspondence that must be retained by rule of the Secretary of State’s Office.
It’s not as though town officials don’t know about public access requirements. They do.
Selectmen Stan Howe, Dennis Doyon, Jack Cross, Donald Bennett and Robert Everett each attested, in writing, to having completed state-mandated public access training less than a year ago, and Cole is an experienced and knowledgeable town manager, so there is no reasonable excuse that these officials did not post the meetings and are deleting e-mails.
Could there have been some confusion — as has been suggested — that Cole, who usually posts meetings, didn’t post the May 6 and May 8 dates because he wasn’t attending? Perhaps. But the ultimate responsibility for posting meetings is vested in elected officials, and officials in Bethel chose not to do so. That the meetings were held to interview and decide the town’s new manager makes the lapse most troubling.
Through its attorney, the board of selectmen has acknowledged its error at a time when the town was “in a transition period which not only involves the town manager’s position but that of a senior staff member,” and promised to “strive to see that it does not happen again.”
In the meantime, Cole has been “deleting e-mails for some time,” according to the town’s attorney, a disturbing practice because Maine has strict rules about maintaining public documents for specified periods of time. E-mail and other transitory correspondence must be kept on file for at least one year, and many public documents must be kept longer, depending on their content.
The Sun Journal was told in response to a request to view these e-mails that the material had been deleted, but was available through the town’s Internet provider, for a cost.
The Sun Journal did not pursue access to the e-mails because it would have been costly to the taxpayers of Bethel, but the fact remains that Bethel citizens who may want access to these public documents will have to pay to retrieve them from the e-mail provider, a true obstacle to public access.
Maine law is clear that the public is entitled to access documents and meetings at no cost, but by deleting e-mails, that freedom has been lost in Bethel.
The town’s attorney assured the Sun Journal that the requirement to retain e-mail correspondence has been brought to Cole’s attention and, before leaving office, he would “see that it is broadly known within the office” for future practice.
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is not a statute intended to inconvenience public officials, despite some who think otherwise. It is the public’s guarantee of government accountability, allowing each of us access to documents and meetings in which decisions about public money, property and policy are made.
Adhering to the law is not optional, and public officials have an utter responsibility to understand and follow the law every day, not just when illegal actions are brought to their attention.
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