2016-04-21 / Editorial

A reminder to public officials: Do business in public

The statutes governing executive sessions in Maine are among the laws most overlooked by elected officials. Despite a requirement under Maine law, 1 M.R.S.A. § 412, that all elected officials must complete a training within 120 days of taking the oath of office about the legal requirements of public records and public proceedings, many elected officials – and municipal administrators – seem to exhibit a lack of knowledge about the public requirements of their proceedings.

The elected officials, after taking the training, are then required to make a written or electronic record attesting and certifying that they have completed the training. It will be a curious process to explore exactly how many of Biddeford’s current elected officials are in compliance with this law and have their certifications filed on record.

In 2014, the Courier took a detailed look on an almost biweekly basis, examining the extent to which local governments conformed – or didn’t conform – to the legal requirements of executive sessions. Executive sessions are meetings a governing body may enter, under very specific circumstances, and which the public is not allowed to be present. In time, the ongoing scrutiny of local executive sessions gradually yielded greater compliance with the statute by governing bodies.

Biddeford’s city council and school board were the biggest violators, but in time, they improved.

But you can’t close your eyes too long, or elected officials will become too comfortable withholding information from the public that they are required to reveal.

A few weeks ago, the Courier took a look at executive sessions by the Biddeford City Council and noticed its failures early in the year to notify the public about whom it was engaging in contract negotiations.

The council need not be the only target of scrutiny. Come to find out, the school committee this year also exhibited the same disregard for 1 M.R.S.A. §405 (6) (D), which says of motions to enter executive sessions to negotiate contracts, “The parties must be named before the body or agency may go into executive session.”

On Feb. 23, the school committee did exactly what the statute says not to do – it went into executive session to negotiate a contract without naming the other party.

The saddest part? The committee voted unanimously to do so. The elected school board members, the guardians of the public interest, who ostensibly by now should have all been trained on public proceedings and filed a certificate documenting that training, voted in a manner that proved none of them have the training or knowledge on public interest laws to be casting votes for executive sessions.

With eight board members, all supposedly trained, one would expect that at least one would have the detail of mind to notice that the motion did not name the party as required, and raise his or her hand and pipe up, refusing to vote to enter an executive session until the party was named.

To their benefit, the school committee has had very few executive sessions this year so far – only two, in fact. It is nice to see a governing body not become addicted to the liberal use of executive sessions. The school board’s other executive session was held on March 22 to review a student’s records – a completely allowable purpose. It was followed by a public vote to allow that student to remain in school past the age of 20.

Elected officials who have been in office for 120 days or more, and who have not yet filed certification that they have been trained on public documents and public proceedings, may want to complete that training as soon as possible.

And then subsequently, elected officials should vote to demonstrate that they understand the very laws on public process that they were trained on.

Perhaps this article may serve as the first step in said training. Now, elected officials, go get the training that is mandated and file the proof. Or better yet, prove that you have been trained by voting as if you were, in fact, trained.

– Ben Meiklejohn, staff writer

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