By Ramona du Houx

September 2, 2012

Changes in the state’s Freedom of Access Act which strengthened if for citizens making it easier for Mainers to get public records took effect August 31, 2012. An Ombudsman position, established in 2007, will now be funded. Because of budget constrains the position had been left open.Mal Leary, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, called that move, “a huge improvement.”

“This person will be there for everyone, to hear right-to-know issues so people don’t have to go to court,” said Leary, according to the Portland Press Herald. “That can be a daunting prospect, especially in these economic times.”

Public access officers now must be in every state, county, municipal school and regional agency.

The additions and clarifications to the Freedom of Access Act include:

  • Each state, county, municipal, school and regional agency must appoint and train an existing employee to become its “public access officer.”
  • Public agencies must acknowledge and fulfill requests to inspect or copy public records “within a reasonable period of time.”
  • If an agency plans to fulfill a request, an official must provide a good-faith, nonbinding estimate of how long it will take.
  • If a request is denied, an official must respond in writing within five business days and state the reason for the denial. A denial may be appealed to Superior Court within five business days.
  • Inspection, translation or copying of public records may be scheduled when it won’t interfere with regular agency operations.
  • An agency must provide public records in electronic form if they’re requested, available and don’t contain confidential information that cannot be separated.
  • An agency isn’t required to create a record that doesn’t exist or provide access to a computer terminal to view digital documents.
  • The maximum hourly fee that an agency may charge to research and compile requested public records increased from $10 to $15, after the first hour of staff time per request.
  • If the estimated cost exceeds $30, an agency must notify a requester before proceeding. If it exceeds $100 or the requester has failed to pay past copying fees, an agency may require advance payment.
  • When buying computer software and other information technology, all government agencies must “consider” whether it will maximize access to and exportability of public records while protecting confidential information.