AUGUSTA — Maine people are interested in what their governments are up to.

That’s the upshot of a new report issued by the state’s ombudsman for opening meetings and public records.

In 2015, there were 416 inquiries about public meetings and public records handled by Brenda Kielty, a lawyer with the Maine Attorney General’s Office. She is the state’s first official Freedom of Access Act ombudsman.

Kielty, who issued a report to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, said that was a 37 percent increase from the 303 inquiries she handled in 2013.

She said the bulk of those 2015 contacts, 169, came from private citizens and the second-largest sector, 96, were contacts from other state agencies. The media had 25 contacts with her office over FOAA records in 2015, and municipalities contacted her 31 times, among other contacts not specified by category.

“I see that as a success in the program, which means that more people are accessing the resource that we have to offer them,” Kielty said.


She wrote in an email that it would be impossible to say whether the increase in requests is the result of greater interest in government or greater awareness of the resources.

“I can say that the people who contact me, whether requesters or agency officials or staff, tend to be passionate about how government operates in Maine,” she wrote.

The ombudsman’s position was created by the Legislature in 2007 to educate the public and government officials on the state’s open-records law and to resolve disputes over records requests, without advocating for one side or the other.

Kielty said requests for municipal records made up the majority of inquiries to her office, and those looking for information were increasingly asking for access to email messages to, from and among elected officials or other government workers.

“Most of them still come from private citizens and most of them have to do with access to public records held by municipalities,” Kielty said. She said the large number of city, town and county governments in Maine made those statistics relatively unsurprising.

She said that over the past two years, the number of requests from state agency employees seeking advice on the law was up from 56 requests in 2014 to 96 in 2015.


“The agency staff are contacting me to get information before there’s a dispute to make sure they are understanding their obligations under the law or to try to deal with requesters they have had some problems with,” Kielty said.

In her 22-page report, Kielty noted that state agencies charged $11,273 in fees for responding to requests, and they spent at least 1,296 hours on those requests.

Not all state agencies were able to report the number of hours they spent on FOAA each year, she said, but the Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s largest agency, saw the largest number of requests at 330 and spent the most time on them at 404 hours. The state’s Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Services saw the fewest number of requests at six.

Kielty told the committee that she, on occasion, had to advise state and local agencies that they had to produce records that they believed were not public.

She wrote in an email: “One example from 2015 involved a commercial requester who submitted a FOAA request for customer billing information from a water district and was denied access. The requester filed a complaint with me. This same requester had made numerous requests to water districts across the state for similar information. The water districts had concerns about the privacy rights of their customers and were reluctant to release water consumption and contact information to a vendor. They believed that residents did not expect their home water bill would be handed over to a vendor who could then contact them directly to try to sell a product.

“Despite the legitimate privacy concerns cited by the water district, the customer billing information being requested was not confidential,” Kielty wrote. “I discussed the denial with the agency and the records were provided.”

She added that the Freedom of Access Act includes a judicial remedy for requesters to challenge a denial of public records.

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