The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has asked for $5,000 in fees before it will turn over several years’ worth of disciplinary records related to agency employees to the Maine Wire.
In response, the Maine Wire narrowed its Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request to include only records from the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS), but DHHS returned with a request for $2,950.
Dayna Collins, a public access officer at DHHS, attributed the exorbitant cost of the records request to the amount of time DHHS personnel would have to spend reviewing the documents for exempted material.
“All disciplinary records related to DHHS personnel are considered confidential and exempt from FOAA except for the final discipline,” Collins said in an email.
“It would take staff from the department an estimated 200 hours to review all disciplinary records from all DHHS personnel from 2017 to 2023 in order to see if there was final discipline issued to the staff member as all records leading up to that are statutorily exempted from FOAA,” she said.
The record request was submitted as part of a routine journalistic investigation into the operations of a government agency that has been beset with problems for years.
Annual reports by the Child Welfare Ombudsman have shown for several years that the child welfare agency is struggling to accomplish its mission, and a bipartisan coalition in Augusta is once again making the case for an aggressive reform of the agency.
Government agencies are allowed to waive fees for requests that aren’t commercial in nature, but DHHS has opted not to waive the fees.
That decision effectively places the records beyond the reach of most journalistic operations in Maine, which cannot afford to pay government fees.
Rep. John Andrews (R-Paris) has submitted a bill for the current legislative session that would cap all FOAA fee requests at $600, but the bill has not been referred to committee yet.
The Maine Wire will continue to negotiate with DHHS in order to bring to light disciplinary records that might help the public better understand the problems that have plagued the child welfare agency