South Portland mayor pushes councilors to lift the shades on closed-door meetings

South Portland Mayor Gerard Jalbert
Seth Koenig | BDN
South Portland Mayor Gerard Jalbert Buy Photo
Posted June 25, 2014, at 3:34 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The City Council hopes to bring more transparency to its closed-door meetings after they reached an agreement on new executive session procedures in a workshop Monday.

Mayor Gerard Jalbert raised the issue of transparency with executive sessions during a May workshop.

The City Council has the right to meet privately to consider confidential personnel information, real estate negotiations or “litigation matters,” according to a recent memorandum from city attorney Sally Daggett. In those sessions, if relevant, councilors will often reach consensus about how they would like Daggett to proceed.

Jalbert’s concern is when executive sessions are held and the council gives Daggett a legal direction to take but does not return to a public meeting afterward to take a vote indicating a decision.

A City Council may not, under Maine law, take a formal vote while in executive session.

But consensus reached in those sessions may require spending money on legal fees or concern the sale of city property. While the city should not jeopardize its interests, residents should know where their councilors stand, Jalbert has argued.

He cited legal battles in the past few years, specifically involving councilors’ health-care options and city staff running for public office, where councilors did not vote publicly after giving direction to Daggett in an executive session.

“Maybe it’s technically not a vote, but it’s a fine line, and you don’t want to be in that fine line,” he said after Monday’s workshop. “It can’t be on a wink or a handshake; it’s got to happen in public.”

He also said the council should be more selective about when it decides to consider an issue behind closed doors.

Several councilors still questioned changes to the current procedure on grounds publicly voting on a legal or business item could tip the city’s hand or expose council dissent.

“I’m being cautious about undermining the process,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

Ultimately, councilors supported the process shift. No ordinance changes or resolutions are necessary to tweak executive session agenda items.

Councilors simply agreed, from now on, that Daggett will be more informative in agenda descriptions of executive session items and will indicate whether the council could return from executive session to take a public vote before adjourning a meeting.

Thornton Heights bond

Councilors also said they expect to move forward with a bond referendum on the November ballot to complete long-term road and water improvements in Thornton Heights.

The proposed November referendum would allow borrowing $3.5 million to finance a portion of the Thornton Heights and Pleasantdale street and sewer improvement projects.

The estimated four-year project, in a part of the city notorious for flooding problems, is broken into four phases, the first of which began this spring along Main Street.

The first phase will be covered in the city’s 2015 capital improvement plan. Much of the $12 million total project cost will be covered by contributions from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System and tax increment financing.

But finance director Greg L’Heureux is asking voters to approve a $3.5 million bond to fund the balance for the remaining three phases.

The city would use the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund program to finance the project with a federally subsidized interest rate. Work on phase two sewer work and street improvement, which is set to begin next year, cannot begin without the funding.

L’Heureux assured the council that property tax impact would be minimal because the debt service would be offset by TIF funds. He said he hopes voters consider the question a “no-brainer,” in light of the neighborhood’s needs.

The council will consider adding the bond referendum to the Nov. 4 ballot at their July 7 meeting.

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