Published Date Written by Ted CohenEditor,
In meeting secretly to discuss how to settle a case of a business that failed to pay $1 million in sewer fees, Portland city councilors are breaking the law.
The public should insist that these discussions be open.
Government officials too often and conveniently claim legalisms when they are forced to defend going behind closed doors to do the public's business.
As often as the legal position of a municipality is used to hide behind a law that is specifically designed to avoid such shenanigans, even in this case it's not defensible.
There is no plan for the city to to go court to force Shipyard Brewing Co. to pay fees it avoided by what appears to be a series of mistakes made by both the city and by the brewing company.
The mystery of the case is how a business avoided for years to pay its fair share of its sewer bill. Each side has pointed fingers at the other. It appears there is enough blame to go around. A lawsuit is highly unlikely.
More likely is an agreement between both the city and the brewers over the amount of the reimbursement.
Taxpayers should be allowed a front-row seat into how its hired public servants somehow let a business slip through without paying its bills from 1996 to 2011.
The Maine Freedom of Access Act specifies, "Except as otherwise provided by statute...all public proceedings shall be open to the public, any person shall be permitted to attend any public proceeding and any record or minutes of such proceedings that is required by law shall be made promptly and shall be open to public inspection."
The act is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels in Maine. The Freedom of Access Act also legislates the methods by which public meetings are conducted.
The law makes exceptions. Discussion of employment, promotion, evaluation, discipline or resignation of an individual regarding public employment can be held in private if open discussion would violate a person's right to privacy.
Discussions of a school board considering the expulsion of a student, provided that the student's parents and lawyer are present.
The purchase or sale of property.
Labor-negotiations information that falls under the attorney-client privilege.
Discussing records exempted by the freedom of access law.
Discussions of license examinations.
Discussions of pending litigation within the district court.
If there appears in that list a good reason for city officials to meet in secret over the brewing company's unpaid sewer bill, it is elusive by its very stealth.
Maine's record of public access is abysmal, and the Portland sewer dispute shows precisely why this is.
A 2002 study, "Freedom of Information in USA," conducted by Investigative Editors & Reporters and the Better Government Association, ranked Maine's access law as the 29th worst in the country, giving it a letter grade of D+, according to SunshineReview.org.