More accountability

When it comes to transparency, accountability and ethics in state government, Maine has one of the poorest ratings in the country, according to the 2015 State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity. Under the center’s evaluation criteria, applied to 13 categories within state government, Maine ranked 42nd and was one of 11 states to receive a failing grade of F. But the best grade in the nation was only a C- to the state of Alaska. Just two other states – California and Connecticut, with grades of C-minus – ranked above a D-plus. It’s not a pretty picture.

The Center for Public Integrity, winner of a 2014 Pulitzer Prize, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization with a staff consisting of journalists, freedom of information experts, copy editors, researchers, fact-checkers and data experts. Its stated mission is “to serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions.”

The center’s investigation involved far more than a cursory look at state governments throughout the nation. The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions that examine key indicators of transparency and accountability, looking not only at what the laws say, but also how well they’re enforced or implemented. The research and reporting were conducted by experienced journalists in each state.

Maine received its best mark, a C-plus, for its internal auditing. State budgeting processes and lobbying disclosure received grades of C-minus, and grades of D were assigned to political financing and legislative accountability. Public access to information, electoral oversight, executive accountability, judicial accountability, state civil service management, procurement, ethics enforcement agencies and state pension fund management all received failing grades of F for their shortcomings.

The investigation should not be construed as a measure of corruption within state government. It makes no attempt to measure corruption itself but rather to examine the systems that state governments use to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur.

Among Maine’s shortcomings cited by the center:

* Oversight of the state’s elections is open to political interference.

* The judicial and executive branches of government police themselves. “The Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices oversees only the legislative branch,” says the center’s report. “The judiciary has a commission on ethics, but it has no enforcement power and hasn’t issued an advisory opinion since 2010. And when questions arise about the executive branch ethics, there’s simply nowhere to turn for guidance.”

* Some definitions in Maine’s open records law are too vague, public officials are given free rein to determine “reasonable” response times to requests, and the law lacks enforcement teeth with no punishment for noncompliance.

* Reporting gaps in the state’s campaign finance law hamper its effectiveness. Meager penalties may be viewed by political operatives merely as an acceptable cost of doing business.

“Maine’s weak accountability and transparency laws aren’t keeping up with the frenetic new pace of politics here,” said the center’s report, “and lawmakers are doing little to change course.”

Maine’s small-town nature, familiarity within government and reluctance to rock the boat contribute to Maine’s vulnerabilities. “Everybody knows everybody here,” Ann Luther of Trenton, who serves on the board of the Maine League of Women Voters, told center investigators. “When we talk about clamping down on this stuff, it’s not just some distant ‘other,’ it’s people we know. That makes it hard.”

But openness and transparency in government are giving way to increased secrecy across the nation, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Forty-four of the 50 states received failing grades in the category of public access to information. “While every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws,” said its report, “they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions and usually have essentially no enforcement mechanisms, beyond the court system, when agencies refuse to comply.”

Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, offers a succinct summary of the problem: “It’s very, very difficult for legislatures to focus on these things and improve them because they don’t want these laws, they don’t want to enforce them, and they don’t want to fund the people enforcing them.”

Until or unless the public can mount an aggressive push for greater openness and higher ethical standards in government, the situation is unlikely to change here in Maine or anywhere else.


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