Only three of Portland’s 17 legislative candidates have signed an open government pledge

Update: After being contacted for this story, Green party senate candidate Seth Baker said he signed the pledge. He is now listed among the signatories. We’ve updated this post to reflect that. 

Of the 17 candidates seeking to represent Portland in the Maine Legislature, only three have signed a pledge to support open government if elected.

Maine House of Representatives candidates Rachel Talbot-Ross, a Democrat, Republican James Azzola, and Green party Senate candidate Seth Baker are the only would-be Portland legislators to put their names on a pledge that the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition sent to every candidate in the state — although it entails little more than promising to obey existing law.

The pledge says candidates will follow Maine’s public-records law and “will actively oppose – and not participate in – any meetings to discuss legislative matters where the public is excluded contrary to the letter and spirit of the law.”

It has gotten a lackluster response statewide: 86 of the 365 candidates on the November ballot signed on, according to the public list of signatories.

Asking candidates to take pledges is common during campaigns, but transparency has been a hot issue recently in the state.

In the last few months, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has been fined for holding a public meeting in private, dissolved 27 decade-old public health groups with little public explanation or notice, and rejected $3 million in federal funding to help young adults at risk for mental illness, without saying why.

But doing the people’s business behind closed doors is not confined to the executive branch. Last year, both Democrats and Republicans crafted the $6.7 billion state budget largely in secret and legislators openly disregarded Maine open-meetings law.

The Pine Tree State is among the least accountable and transparent in the country, according to a ranking by the nonprofit investigative news organization The Center for Public Integrity. In 2015, the group placed Maine 43rd in a ranking of states for government openness, giving it a failing grade on the majority of rating criteria — including public access to information, electoral oversight, judicial accountability and ethics enforcement.

In the 2012 ranking, Maine ranked 46th and is the only New England state to receive an overall failing grade in either year.

When asked about the pledge, many Portland candidates who did not sign on suggested they’d overlooked the matter among the many initiatives they are asked to support.  

“I have reviewed the pledge and am not sure why I did not participate.” said Rep. Richard R. Farnsworth, a Democrat seeking re-election.

“We get a ton of these [requests] as candidates,” said Democratic House candidate Heather Sanborn, who did not sign and said she may have missed the pledge.

Republican House candidate Susan Abercrombie was also unfamiliar with the pledge when contacted by BDN Portland. “My guess it that it is probably broader than I would think appropriate,” Abercrombie said, adding that she intended to review it.

Another Republican who didn’t sign, Senate candidate Adam Pontius, said after reading the pledge that he supported it and that LePage should not have held a recent education commission meeting behind closed doors.   

“Both major parties have little respect for our open meeting laws,” according to Baker, the Green Party candidate for Senate, who also said he forgot to mail in the pledge.

John Brautigam, a board member of Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said that he understands that candidates are busy, but that overlooking the issue of government transparency is part of the problem. Unless Mainers demand more of their elected officials little will change, he suggested. This is not the first election that his organization has asked candidates to take a pledge, he said.

“There continues to be issues that arise where we don’t think the spirit of the law has be honored and if we don’t make an issue out of it we feel that those incidents will increase,” said Brautigam.