Legislators in dark on sunshine law

Well, this could explain a lot. Last week, Eric Brakey, Senate chair of the legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, recessed the committee in order for party members to indulge in some private discussion. Challenged by the Sun Journal over excluding the public, the newspaper reported that Brakey said he was “unfamiliar with the state law that requires lawmakers to conduct their business in public.”

While Brakey is in his freshman term, he also is chair of a committee. One of the bigger and more consequential committees, at that. Further, this is not Day One. The senator is concluding his second year in Augusta, a bit late to be surprised by hearing that the legislature is supposed to deliberate in public.

This says something about appointing first-term legislators as committee chairs, but putting that aside, one must live under a rock not to be aware of Maine’s Right to Know Law, or “sunshine law,” especially if one has gotten himself elected to the legislature.

The Sun Journal reported that Republican committee member Deborah Sanderson actually chided the reporter who protested for “taking up time that we really can’t afford.”

Oh, excuse us! You are busy people! Do not trouble yourself with the electorate.

Democratic committee member Sen. Anne Haskell said, “It’s nothing different than what we discussed in the other [committee] room.” Brakey said he would repeat publicly “the exact words that were said in the other [caucus] room.” So they disappeared into private rooms to say what they had just said in the committee room, and then came back to the microphones to repeat what they had just said in private. Have we got that right?

These private discussions, said Republican Earle McCormick, are allowed under the Joint Rules of the Legislature. Really? The Joint Rules adopted by the legislature supersede state law? And, said Sen. McCormick, the Appropriations Committee does it all the time.

He’s got that right, and these are not the only two committees who plunge behind the curtain to escape the public eye. And ear. So, too, do both parties during sessions in the chambers, recessing from time to time for private discussions.

There are periodic objections to this practice, which seems a clear violation of Maine’s Right to Know Law. However, because the functioning of the legislature is entirely in the hands of the two major political parties and the practice of private discussions is a longstanding one protected by the parties, there is little recourse for the citizenry who is shut out. There is a little shaming now and then, but nothing comes of it. Thank you, Sun Journal, for rattling this cage.

As for Brakey, he requested a copy of the recently discovered Maine Freedom of Access Act from the Sun Journal itself so that he can review it. Note to senator: this and all other laws can be found in the Legislative Law Library or in the myriad sets of Maine statutes to be found all over the State House, including, we would hope, in your own caucus office. Maybe he thought the Sun Journal was making it up.

This was not the only news that caused gnashing of teeth recently. The dreaded Michael Heath, who departed the Christian Civic League seven years ago, is back to save us from same sex marriage. Again.

Heath, who once asserted that it was “important for me to ride loose in the saddle,” left the League in 2009, stating that he would be devoting some loose-in-the-saddle time to “teaching solar cooking to needy Africans,” the Christian equivalent to spending more time with your family. In that year, a citizens’ initiative overturned a law allowing same sex marriages in Maine.

In 2012, he was back. A citizen’s referendum on same sex marriage was on the ballot, and Heath was an active opponent. Despite his efforts, the referendum was approved with the support of 53 percent of the voters.

Four years later? Back again. Heath has initiated the paperwork for yet another referendum to repeal the 2012 act. If he gathers the necessary 61,123 signatures, the question will go on a statewide ballot. He has 18 months to do so.

The language in the standard Heath campaign is apocalyptic, calling same sex marriage “sorcery,” “hellish,” a “child of the devil,” an “attack by demonic forces.” He even laid the blame for the 2009 flooding of an Augusta basement on “the moral climate in Maine.”

Heath warned his “dearest Christian friends” that “you can expect our enemy to howl. In fact … if the enemy isn’t howling, we must be doing something wrong.” Oh, we’re howling, Heath. We’re howling.

In 2008, Heath wrote that “the nation will right itself it if fixes sex.” Well, sex is not broken, thank you very much. Heath’s wrong-headed campaign will do little more than cause the wasting of a lot of money, money which could be better used to post guards at the doors of public bathrooms to check our birth certificates to be sure we are using the conveniences in accordance with our birth gender. That is, if we wanted to follow North Carolina’s misguided example.



Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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