September 20, 2020

The public’s bill

What does it mean when we talk about “open government”? Is it a political system that functions in plain view, with announced meetings to which everyone is welcome? Is it a government that allows the public to participate in debate and the decision-making process? Or, is it a government that freely offers information to its primary stakeholder, the public?

Maine government, at every level — state, county and local — should be all those things. Most public officials understand this. They try to be up front with the people they serve. In practice, however, “openness” is a fragile concept. It often comes into conflict with the comfort and convenience of officials. When it does, it breaks, and information vital to a democratic system never gets out.

A very important bill that gives strength to the concept of open government, LD 366, did get out this week — out of the Judiciary Committee on an impressive 10-3 vote, and onto the floor. Sponsored by Rep. Kyle Jones, D-Bar Harbor, it would allow public acccess to the applications and resumes of finalists for important local, county and state jobs.

Taxpayers and voters in Maine communities might wonder why it should take an act of their Legislature to ratify what would appear to be common sense: Citizens need to know who were the serious candidates for an important job such as police chief or town manager to assess the quality of the judgment made by the officials who did the hiring. Pretty basic.

Unfortunately, it was an act of the Legislature in 1989 that blacked out the hiring process. The previous year, the state Supreme Court ruled that under then existing statute the Bangor Daily News should have access to the names of the finalists for the position of Bangor police chief. Openness made some officials uncomfortable. They succeeded in having the law changed.

Rep. Kyle’s bill, now amended to specify the job titles that would be included, is a modest attempt to “open the door a little bit,” he says, on the hiring process. It doesn’t effect job-hunters who merely want to test the waters. But after the application is made out, the resume is delivered and the candidate, now a serious contender, is invited for a formal interview, Jones and a majority of the Judiciary Committee believe the public has an interest in the proceedings. We agree. Taxpayers should know who was under consideration before the final cut.

The certainty of a blackout of public information in these situations was stacked in committee hearings against the possibility that public exposure might discourage prospective applicants. According to Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Gardiner, however, “No compelling evidence was made that this would have a chilling effect on people applying for jobs.”

This bill deserves support because the public deserves a chance to see how well it will work. Itself an amendment to the Freedom of Access Act, LD 366 would sunset in October 1998. At that time, if it has had a serious, chilling effect on job applicants, the Legislature has the option of allowing it to lapse.

Instead, if it has served the state well, providing information vital to voters and taxpayers seriously interested in the quality of their elected officials and local leadership, then it should be reinstated. A vote for this bill is an expression of support for “open government,” a term that means many things, and is meaningless without an informed public.

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