PORTLAND, Maine — A city official is defending what appears to have been an illegal meeting of at least seven City Council members on a small Casco Bay island.
Other photos posted on the city’s official Twitter account and Facebook page show the councilors touring the 19th-century military installation, but the city didn’t give public notice of the officials’ visit — an apparent violation of Maine law.
A gathering of three or more City Council members is a public proceeding under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which requires that notice be given “in ample time to allow public attendance.”
But a city spokeswoman said that the gathering at Fort Gorges did not count as a public meeting or require public notice because it “did not transact any business or functions affecting citizens” and there are not applications regarding the fort pending before the council.
“We were not hiding it in any way,” spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said, noting the social media posts about the gathering.
She declined to comment on how many times three or more councilors had met without public notice this year.
— City of Portland, ME (@CityPortland) September 11, 2017
In one tweet, the city states that councilors were there to “learn about the improvements we’re making” to the fort. They were carried to Fort Gorges, which is not accessible by ferry, on the city’s reserve fireboat, the Cavallaro.
Sigmund Schutz, a First Amendment lawyer and partner with Preti Flaherty in Portland, said that unless it is a purely social event, a quorum of councilors gathering is a public meeting regardless where it is held or whether votes are cast.
The councilors going to see a concert at Thompson’s Point wouldn’t count, Schutz explained, but a trip there to examine the venue and facility would require public notice.
Schutz said that the councilors’ trip to Fort Gorges appeared to be in line with other proceedings, such as planning board site visits, that are routinely treated as public meetings. But he added it is difficult to assess what happened because the only accounts of the gathering are the city’s and a councilor’s social media posts.
“Part of the issue with not strictly adhering to the letter and spirit of the right-to-know law is it makes it hard to know,” Schutz said.