The Maine Viewpoint
Editorial opinions from across the state.
TIMES RECORD, Brunswick
Needless Judicial Secrecy
Bureaucratic protectionism won out over public interest recently when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ordered that the details of a three-man panel’s exploration of misconduct in the 1989 murder trial of Dennis Dechaine [at right] should remain sealed. Government transparency and Mainers’ right to know how their business is conducted suffered another significant setback.
The 3-2 ruling, from which two of the high court’s judges abstained, upholds a lower court’s rejection of Brunswick author James Moore’s request under the Maine Freedom of Access Act to examine the files, records, and reports that the panel generated during its deliberations. The gist of the split decision holds that the panel does not meet a four-part test to establish it as a public entity, in part because the legislature did not authorize its mission. Therefore, the group’s working papers are not subject to the Freedom of Access Act, despite the fact that retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Eugene Beaulieu and attorneys Charles Abbott and Marvin Glazier undertook the study at the behest of Attorney General Steven Rowe.
Such legal legerdemain might conform with the fine print in textbooks used at the Maine School of Law, but it completely subverts Rowe’s stated goal of restoring public confidence in the trial that resulted in Dechaine’s conviction for the 1988 murder of twelve-year-old Sarah Cherry in Bowdoin. Outside the musty atmosphere of a courtroom, it looks like another attempt to cover government officials’ backsides with red tape.
“In order to ensure continued public confidence in the Office of the Attorney General as well as other law enforcement agencies,” Rowe wrote in an October 2004 memo authorizing the trial review, “I request that you conduct an independent and impartial review of these allegations (of misconduct by investigators) and provide to me a report of your findings.” The review team did so in August 2006, at which time Rowe issued a four-page statement from Beaulieau, Abbott, and Glazier in which they stated that, after reviewing court and police documents and conducting interviews, the trio believed allegations of misconduct had no merit. The basis for their conclusion has yet to be made public.
Shielding the public from those findings with a paternalistic and patronizing “everything’s okay, trust us” brush-off heightens skepticism and suspicions about the way Dechaine’s trial unfolded. Furthermore, by enshrouding questions about the Dechaine case in a thicker veil of legalistic shadows, the ruling encourages more hypothetical retrials and grousing about a government cover-up.
By adding new fodder for that type of speculation, Rowe and the three justices who denied public access to the review panel’s documents have exposed the Cherry family to further pain and suffering. Doing so makes a heinous crime worse.
JOURNAL TRIBUNE, Biddeford
A gas tax deficit
We already pay plenty for the privilege of driving, but — the price of gasoline aside — we’re not paying enough. The Maine Department of Transportation faces a three billion dollar backlog of road and bridge projects, and there is a strong likelihood the state will fall farther behind because of a growing deficit in the federal Highway Trust Fund.
Those who use the nation’s roads pay for their upkeep through taxes, particularly on gasoline and diesel fuel. But these taxes aren’t keeping up with transportation needs, and Maine is forecast to lose nearly one-third of the money the state expected for road and bridge repairs.
Although gas prices have risen precipitously, fuel tax revenues have been on a long-term decline. Since these taxes are charged by the gallon, improvements in fuel economy have slashed the rate we pay per mile, and now many people are also driving less. Yet the need for investment in good transportation continues to grow.
Maine recently passed a bond issue that will raise ten million dollars for road and bridge improvements. Besides bringing in matching federal funds and making travel safer, this investment will provide jobs and help make the state more economically competitive. Maine also plans to raise $160 million over four years with state revenue bonds to begin repairing and rebuilding substandard bridges.
Mal Leary of Capitol News Service reported recently that the Maine Department of Transportation was due to receive $174 million in 2009, but now expects the Highway Trust Fund deficit to cut that amount by $54 million. Meanwhile, the cost of construction is rising sharply.
Maine and other states are pressing Congress to supplement Trust Fund revenue with a one-time appropriation from the general fund. The next president and Congress will also have to consider a long-term plan to increase transportation funding. We must maintain the infrastructure we have and consider investments that will make travel and transport more efficient.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS
For decades, teachers held over their students the threat of putting discipline infractions on their permanent record. It was more myth than reality, but recent federal education law has turned the myth into reality by creating a record of student behavior infractions that is
forwarded to the state and made available to the U.S. Department of Education.
The Five Town Community School District board, which oversees Camden Hills Regional High School, recently balked at sending the data to the state Department of Education. Refusing to forward the information, which includes student names, would have threatened some of the district’s federal funding. Board members later relented, but many
remained unhappy with the principle of the disclosure with its Orwellian overtones. Their concerns are understandable. Five Town Superintendent Pat Hopkins said the infractions that must be reported to the state include bullying, fighting, truancy, smoking or possession of tobacco, possession of alcohol or illegal drugs, disorderly conduct, making threats, sexual harassment, aggravated assault, and others.
Several scenarios leap to mind. For example, if a student is accused of smoking marijuana behind the bleachers before homeroom, and the student’s infraction is forwarded to the state, could the federal government deny college financial aid on the basis of that charge? What about groups that grant private scholarships — is that information available to them? And what if the student did not, in fact, smoke marijuana, but smelled of the substance from standing near someone who was smoking?
Bill Hurwitch, who oversees the state Education Department’s school data gathering, understands why the program could be seen as Big Brother tactics. But the state is prohibited by law from sharing the names of any students with the federal government or with private groups.
Though the information is not gathered for school accountability, it is available in aggregate to the public. That means parents can inquire of their school principal how many incidents of fighting, sexual harassment, and drug use were recorded at the school. “It’s a question of trust,” Mr. Hurwitch said of the Camden district’s concerns, though he admitted he understood “that Big Brother issue.”
Just as students get a fresh start every September, perhaps the name-identifying data should be deleted at the start of each school year.
Time to Open Maine’s primary system
The June primary elections are now behind us and, as usual, Maine’s unenrolled voters were, for the most part, excluded from participating. As of November 2006, unenrolled voters in Maine totaled 375,235, outnumbering both Democrats (309,525) and Republicans (279,641) by significant margins. While the figures undoubtedly have seen some change in nearly two years, it is clear that there is a very large block of Maine citizens who have no voice in the selection of candidates for county, state, and national offices. We believe it is time for that to change.
Maine should give serious consideration to a semi-closed primary system. As in a closed primary — the system now in place here — registered party members would be allowed to vote only in their own party’s primary. But any unenrolled voter, one who has registered without declaring party preference, would then be able to participate simply by choosing the preferred party ballot as he or she enters the polling area.
The Republican and Democratic parties have dominated the U.S. political landscape for generations and wield enormous influence in our election system. But it is wrong to force a citizen into formal affiliation with a political party in order to participate in the selection of those candidates who will, upon election, represent every constituent citizen, not just the Republicans or Democrats of that particular district.