Bridgton gets formal to keep pace with Freedom of Access Act

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The Bridgton Municipal Complex is the place to go and the people of Bridgton have the right to know, when it comes to requests for public information about local government under the state’s Freedom of Access Act. And yet in the past, Bridgton, like many towns, has not always been sure just how to honor those requests — especially those requiring a fair amount of staff time.

Until now. Among the most recent amendments to the Freedom of Access Law made by the 2012 Legislature was the funding and hiring Sept. 1 of a new public access ombudsman in the Attorney General’s Office. The $88,000 position, being filled by the AG’s Public Information Officer Brenda Kielty, was created in 2007 but had never been filled. Kielty’s job will be to help any person, resident or non-resident, who has trouble getting information from any state government agency.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz and Executive Assistant Georgiann Fleck both received expanded training recently in public access law — beyond that which is required of all elected and appointed officials — and each has a new official position, approved Sept. 11 by the Bridgton Board of Selectmen. Berkowitz is Bridgton’s Public Access Officer, and Fleck is the town’s Deputy Access Officer.

It will be their job to process all official Freedom of Access requests, under expanded procedures approved Sept. 25 by the board that make the process more formal than it was before.

Previously, if a person wanted to make a Freedom of Access request, generally he or she simply sent a signed letter to the town outlining their request. Under the law, the information must be supplied within a reasonable length of time, with a five-day deadline applying only if the request is being denied.

Berkowitz has created a form for Freedom of Access requests that don’t require a legal opinion from the town attorney. The form includes the reminder that, under the law, Bridgton only has to provide “permissible” information “and in a format that currently exists. Different formats will not be honored.”

Once a request is received and signed, with contact information provided, the employee who receives it will move it up the chain of command, notifying not only their immediate supervisor but also either Berkowitz or Fleck. It will be their job to decide how to respond, which in some cases may include preparing an estimate of costs in both research time and copying costs. Then, the requester will be told in writing of the cost estimate. If costs go over $50, the requester may be required to pay the estimated costs, “to be applied to the final total expense,” states a Sept. 21 memo on the expanded procedures.

The memo continues, “The requester may not accept this and the officer or deputy may inform them both verbally followed by a written notice that no further work will be done until the deposit is resolved.”

After any cost estimate issues are resolved, the research and copying may begin. Once completed, the requester is notified verbally, and “If funds are due the town, they shall first be paid in full before any of the materials are released or allowed to be reviewed.” The revenue from processing Freedom of Access requests will be placed into “general government miscellaneous,” the memo states.

At each stage of the process, from beginning to resolution, the selectmen will be kept informed, states the memo. If the town attorney needs to become involved, the process may be amended, and the requester will be notified of that fact, the memo states.

Berkowitz has been meticulous in his time in Bridgton in providing detailed supporting documents for agenda items to the media as part of the selectmen’s packet distributed on the Friday prior to the board’s twice-monthly Tuesday meetings. At their last meeting, he and the board both noted the significant amount of detail provided in the minutes of selectmen’s meetings as prepared by both Town Clerk Laurie Chadbourne and Deputy Town Clerk Dawn Taft.

The comments came up as the board approved a higher standard applying to all elected and appointed town committees for producing a new public record. Under the policy, no longer will it be sufficient simply to tape the meeting — written minutes must be created and distributed.

More information on Maine’s Freedom of Access law is available at www.maine.gov/foaa

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