By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Brenda Kielty has a legislative mandate, a chock-full appointment calendar and good intentions as Maine’s first Public Access Ombudsman. Her actions over the next several months are likely to have far-reaching consequences for public access in Maine in the years and decades to come.
Kielty, formerly the special assistant to the attorney general, said she is fully committed to the lofty ideals that went into creating the position.
“Public access is just absolutely fundamental,” she said. “Our law is based on it. The government is doing the people’s business and the people need to know their business.”
Much of Kielty’s first two months has been spent meeting groups and individuals for the first time, either to establish a baseline relationship or in response to a specific issue.
“There have been inquiries and calls and contacts from every interest group,” she said. “I’ve heard from the public. I’ve heard from the press. I’ve heard from agencies and officials from every level of government. I’ve heard from the school boards.”
However, the routines of the office have yet to be set. How much of Kielty’s time will be spent reacting to specific issues, and how much will go into proactive education efforts? What are the most common problems people experience in accessing public documents? At what stage in the FOAA process should she be consulted, if at all?
The position was created by the state legislature in 2006 but remained unfunded until this year. When it was announced in September that the position would be filled from within the attorney general’s office, some of the enthusiasm of the press was tempered with caution.
In an editorial for Current Publishing, Ben Bragdon wrote that the way Kielty handles the position “bears watching,” noting that a strong, independent character will be needed to remain unswayed by politics.
Judy Meyer, a managing editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, which was instrumental in lobbying for the position, said that Kielty has what it takes.
“She’s got the right personality and she’s not ‘on a side’ of this issue,” Meyer said. “She’s on the side of public access.”
On many questions, Kielty said that she will be able to offer a more informed answer a few months down the road. She is tasked with making regular reports to the state about public access issues and data; the first report is scheduled for March 2013.
“It’s still so early,” she said. “I don’t want to draw too many conclusions at this point.” One issue that is on her radar at this early stage is the role that time and money play in public access.
“It’s one thing to say you can have a record, and another to say you can have it in a month at a cost of X number of dollars,” she said.
Kielty eventually hopes to reduce inconsistencies in how public access laws are interpreted and applied from different agencies and public entities.
“One of the longer term goals in terms of FOAA is to really try to create a unified and consistent message across state government and Maine about open government and about the value of that,” Kielty said.
Meyer predicts that having an ombudsman will help to resolve many public access issues before both sides become entrenched in a legal showdown.
“This position eliminates the lawyers. Not all of them, mind you, but it puts the people and government officials in touch with one another in a way that invites each side to work out their differences,” Meyer said.
Meyer said that Kielty’s position will also help to reduce legal expenses for municipalities that would otherwise have to tap their lawyers for legal opinions on access issues. “The system we had pre-ombudsman was simply inefficient,” Meyer said.
Meyer said her staff is likely to actively work with Kielty only sporadically.
“I would first encourage our staff to use in-house resources before we approach her on anything,” Meyer said. “She’s only one person filling an enormous job, and I think, for the most part, Maine’s press fends for itself quite well on FOAA.”
Meyer said she was motivated to help create the position after seeing members of the public struggle to get information and that she sees Kielty’s primary role as helping those individuals.
Kielty said that she has been involved with the press on both specific and general public access issues.
“One way that folks in the media have gone about involving me is just by copying me into a FOAA request that maybe wasn’t responded to in a way that they were completely satisfied with or just giving me a heads up that they were going to be looking for something and maybe anticipated some problems,” she said.
So far, she said, the problems that she has heard about from the media involve time and respect.
“I’ve heard about the issue of time, how critical that is for people in the media,” she said. “What seems like a slight delay in another venue takes on a whole new meaning in journalism,” she said. “That’s a very important factor.”
She said reporters have also said that they are not well treated when asking for public information.
“People on both sides want to feel that they’re respected for the job that they’re doing and that ultimately, the interests do meet and it’s good to hear that sometimes it’s just a matter of making sure that you’re polite and respectful.”
The issue of respect, she said, she was happy to hear about because “that’s something we can take care of. We can do that in Maine.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling is a staff reporter for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, Maine.