Regulate ‘E-Meetings’

Posted Oct. 27, 2009, at 7:06 p.m.

Small-town government often violates the spirit — if not the letter — of Maine’s open meeting law. Selectmen and councilors have been known to gather at the coffee shop, or in less public places, to chat about an upcoming meeting agenda or municipal issues in general. With the advent of e-mail, a new way to bypass the law has emerged.

In the Androscoggin County town of Sabattus, the town manager abruptly resigned at meeting and three selectmen voted to accept the resignation, seemingly well aware of what was coming. Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, was asked by constituents to look into the matter. He concluded the three selectmen had met secretly and may have used an e-mail chain to discuss and agree on a pact to force the town manager out of office, the Lewiston Sun Journal has reported.

The current law prohibits members of municipal, school and county boards from discussing policy matters by e-mail. If a selectman writes about an upcoming vote to two or more members of the board, he or she has clearly violated the law. What is not expressly prohibited is when Selectman A sends a message to Selectman B, who in turn sends a message to Selectman C. The intent of the current law, though, is clearly to prevent such circumvention of the sanctity of open meetings.

Rep. Stacy Dostie, D-Sabattus, has proposed a law she believes would clarify and strengthen existing laws that prevent elected officials from making decisions based on private discussions. The proposal will be considered in the next session.

“I want to clarify the laws so that one person talking to another person on the phone or via e-mail and making town decisions is illegal,” Rep. Dostie told the Sun Journal.

In Rumford, the town manager was abruptly fired, leading the Sun-Journal to dig into the reasons. The paper examined e-mails sent among three selectmen, available through the freedom of information law, and found what Sun Journal Managing Editor Judy Meyer called “an ‘e-consensus’” among the three selectmen on many issues. The e-mails showed the three “in cahoots,” Ms. Meyer said, to freeze out the other two board members.

In a tangential matter, the newspaper learned by examining the e-mails that the interim town manager and at least one selectman exchanged 50 or more messages gossiping about a town employee who was out of work on an injury. The messages suggested he was lying about the injury and disparaged the man’s wife, who wrote a blog about town matters. The messages were often juvenile, “making fun of him” in “derogatory language,” Ms. Meyer said.

Yet another example came last year when the Lewiston City Council voted to freeze an account for a playground. E-mails revealed discussion on the matter outside of public meetings, the Sun Journal reported.

Sadly, Ms. Meyer said, elected officials haven’t learned. A recent examination of e-mails from Lewiston city councilors revealed that some were asking city employees for favors, such as fixing parking tickets.

The law must stay one step ahead of potential abuse, and public access to this information must remain open.

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