Portland is Maine’s biggest city, and it’s home to some of the state’s most complicated problems.
So, it’s disturbing to see the City Council fail to grasp a very simple concept.
It’s this: City business should be done in public. Unless a specific discussion meets one of very few exceptions to the state’s Freedom of Access Act, meetings should be announced in advance and held where the public can attend. The law says that counts even when it’s not a regular meeting, even when it’s not at City Hall, even when all the members are not present.
Whenever three or more councilors are in the same place to work on city business, it’s a meeting that requires notice so that interested members of the public could attend. Easy, right?
Maybe not. Last month, before voting on an extremely controversial plan to move the city’s homeless shelter, a majority of the council took walking tours of two neighborhoods, one where the current shelter is located and the other at one of the sites proposed for its replacement. The site walks were not posted as public meetings, so attendance was by invitation only. The neighbors got to tell their side of the story without any of the limits imposed at formal public hearings, and no record was made of who said what to whom.
The councilors may not have taken any votes, but they were getting information about a hotly contested issue of public interest. That’s city business, and when a voting majority of the council gets together to conduct city business, that’s a meeting.
The councilors involved may not have thought they were on their way to a public meeting – neighborhood groups organized both tours and the councilors say they were individually invited. But once they saw who else showed up, they had a number of good options they could have picked to honor both the letter and spirit of the law.
For instance, they could have rescheduled the tours after giving public notice. They could have designated one member to complete the tour and report back to the rest of the council in public session.
Instead, they chose the worst option, and acted as if the public meeting law did not exist.
The Portland City Council is not the only public body that has trouble with this. It’s likely that boards and committees all over the state get away with skirting the rules, perhaps because they are up to no good, or just because they find the requirements to be a nuisance.
But this is one of those times where intentions don’t matter. When there is a transparency gap, people expect the worst. Holding public meetings without notice degrades confidence in an elected board’s decision-making process and, ultimately, in the policy outcomes it produces.
City Councilor Jill Duson, who did not attend either site visit, has proposed taking up the issue at a regular public meeting to clarify what responsibilities public officials have under the open-meeting law. That’s a very good idea. There is no reason that violations like this should continue.