2018-09-13 / News

Resident wins FOAA case over city of Biddeford

By Abigail Worthing
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD –York County Superior Court has found in favor of a Biddeford resident in his plight for transparency within city of Biddeford government.

Matthew Lauzon, a law student at the University of Maine School of Law and former candidate in Biddeford’s District 12, filed a suit last fall against the city of Biddeford regarding its refusal to provide documents requested through a Freedom of Access Act request.

The court found that the reason provided by the city in its refusal to provide documents was insufficient, and that it must comply with Lauzon’s request. If the city believes the documents are confidential, it must submit them to the court for an in camera review, otherwise, the city must comply with FOAA standards. Lauzon is required to pay fees associated with procuring the documents, if they are to exceed $100. The court’s decision was issued in June, however Lauzon says he still have not received the documents requested.

In a FOAA request May 5, 2017, Lauzon asked for any and all documents that referred to Lauzon directly or indirectly that exist between the dates of Oct. 1, 2014 and May 5, 2017 that included at least one person who was “employed, elected, or appointed to the city of Biddeford in some capacity at that time,” in which Lauzon was not privy to or a participant.

The Freedom of Access Act is a state statute that allows residents access to public documents and proceedings on both state and local levels, while protecting government interests. The act holds government officials accountable by providing public access, ensuring transparency between officials and residents.

Lauzon is suing the city of Biddeford, its police chief and a former police officer over allegations that he was abused by the officer when he was a teen.

In City Manager Jim Bennett’s refusal to provide documents, dated May 9, 2017, he cites the limitations put on the number of discovery requests allowed by the parties in the lawsuit between Lauzon and the city of Biddeford, stating that the city believed that the FOAA was being used to circumvent the discovery process and therefore obtain more information than was permitted.

Since he became engaged in litigation against the city of Biddeford, filing FOAA requests has become a common for Lauzon, and when the aforementioned request was denied, he wanted to pursue the available channels to ensure that correct policies were being followed. The city of Biddeford provides an online record of all open and closed FOAA requests. In those listed between 2016 and 2018, there are 42 requests from Lauzon.

“In challenging the city in this, I sought to address the incorrect handling of records. For this specific appeal, I wanted to challenge one of the reasons to deny my request. Most importantly, the city may be incorrectly interpreting the law in other ways as well,” Lauzon said.

Lauzon filed the appeal on his own in early 2017, paying $150 in fees to initiate the case out of pocket with the intention of representing himself. However, when attorney Martin Tartre of Portland heard about the case, he took it on pro-bono.

“We, as lawyers, are encouraged to take on pro-bono work every year, and when Matt brought the case to me, I felt that the city had made a mistake in denying this request,” Tartre said. “I’m a big supporter of government transparency, so between that and the fact that I had a client (Lauzon) with so much heart, I was inspired.”

Lauzon hopes that now that the case has reached a judgment, the city will review its policies on how it handles FOAA requests.

“I’m highly confident there are other cases like this where information has been denied. I plan to follow up with the city to make sure the policies are being examined,” Lauzon said.

Bennett has a different take on the outcome of the case.

“This was a very specific, isolated issue. We believed that the FOAA was outside the limit set by the government,” Bennett said. “If you take a look at what we do as a city, we really work hard to keep FOAA requests accessible to the public. We publish every request and response, it’s all there so everyone can see them.” As for changes Lauzon would like to see, he referenced concern over city officials using non-city email accounts to conduct business, leaving those emails out of the realm of what is easily accessible as a public document.

“If a city official is using a Gmail account to communicate with constituents and conduct city business, that is technically part of what the public should have access to. That’s another issue that should be considered when revamping the policies,” Lauzon said.

“I don’t believe that there is anyone who is deliberately trying to circumvent the rules by using a personal email account,” Bennett said when questioned about the policy. “I think everyone is using city email to conduct city business.”

The city will now review the request and begin compiling information for Lauzon.

“I’ve had a unique few years, petitioning and campaigning in Biddeford,” Lauzon said. “What example is this setting, not disclosing this information? I just hope they at least take the time to review and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at news@inthecourier.com.

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