2015-06-11 / Editorial

Eye on: Old Orchard Beach Town Council

By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Last year, the Courier kept track of executive sessions held throughout the year by the school districts and governing bodies in Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach. The sessions were tracked every two months and graded according to how well they adhered to the specific requirements articulated for them by Maine statute.

While the attention to detail and public disclosure varied among the municipalities – with Old Orchard Beach providing the most detailed information, Biddeford being the vaguest and ambiguous about their sessions, and Saco somewhere between the two – in all cases, a significant improvement was noticed in the manner in which the sessions were conducted by the end of 2014. Perhaps this can be attributed to a year’s duration of journalistic monitoring and criticism.

By the beginning of 2015, it seemed largely unnecessary to continue the series because, for the most part, the governing bodies finally seemed to be subscribing to the statutory requirements.

Yet, as an exercise to explore whether the lessons learned in 2014 of how to follow the letter of the law have been permanently embraced, or if relapses into poor practices have resurfaced, it may be of continued benefit to revisit the topic – lest elected officials become complacent if they believe we are not paying attention.

Last year, a letter grade from A to F was attributed to each session and averaged into a cumulative grade. However, in some ways the methodology of grading became interpretive.

In this go round, I will forego the letter grades, but continue to address the faults and strengths of the sessions themselves, without defined measurement.

So let’s start with the Old Orchard Beach Town Council.

In 2014, the council was the most transparent and effective governing body when it came to how they exercised their power in entering executive session. So far, in 2015, we are getting the same results.

From January to May, the town council held only two executive sessions. One was held on March 17 to discuss two items: a proposed tax increment financing district by the Pines, under Title 1 MRSA Section 405(6)(C), and consultations with the town attorney, under Title 1 MRSA Section 405 (6)(E).

A second executive session, on April 7, was held to discuss with the town attorney the legal rights and duties of the town council in regard to the regulation of medical marijuana facilities, under Title 1 MRSA Section 405 (6)(E).

Let’s take a quick refresher on the executive session statutes in Maine. The basics: no actions may be finally approved in an executive session, it takes a three-fifths vote to enter, and the motion to enter executive session must contain a precise nature of the business for the session and include a statutory citation.

In the past, we have seen other entities cite only a statute but not a precise nature of the business, in the motion. We have seen broad strokes of ambiguity passed off as the precise nature – obscure terms such as “personnel matter,” “economic development,” or “consultation with an attorney.”

What did the Old Orchard Beach Town Council do right? For the most part, everything.

They get right to the matter in the language of the motion, specifying exactly the nature of the business to be discussed.

Not, “economic development,” but, “proposed TIF by the Pines.”

While I would normally take issue with the term “consultation with the town attorney” being used as the precise nature of a motion, in the March 17 session, it is used in the same motion that contains the TIF language. It may be assumed that the consultation with the attorney is specifically related to the TIF proposal.

In other words, it was likely not an executive session on two different topics, but one executive session with two citations included in the motion.

Had they been two separate executive sessions, past precedent shows that the Old Orchard Beach Town Council has been very good about separating and noting the times for each different topic being discussed in the session.

Then, as we see on April 7, the council doesn’t settle for merely “consultation with an attorney” as the precise nature for the session. This is a point on which we will have to settle with other governing bodies, however, as we point this out in future articles.

To just say the business is for the purpose of consulting with a lawyer is merely duplicating the statute that is being cited. Yet the motion doesn’t need to contain a citation and then a paraphrase of the citation. It needs a citation and a precise nature for the business being discussed.

The council gets it right. They tell you why they are consulting with a lawyer – to discuss legal rights and duties regarding the regulation of medical marijuana facilities.

That’s highly admirable of them to pass the news around. Don’t bogart the information.

Having analyzed the council all through 2014, and seeing no change in their conduct since we stopped regularly publishing “Executive Session Watch,” I can only conclude that the council is not doing things properly because they know they are being watched, but rather, because they simply intend to do things right.

When leaders don’t conceal their business or shroud it in nonspecifics, townspeople trust them more.

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