The fact that a Facebook forum for discussing local school matters that includes several elected officials in Brunswick is labeled “closed” is the first clue that it could run afoul of the state’s open meetings requirements.
Brunswick officials should be commended for looking for and creating a forum for broad discussion of local matters of concern. But the first problem is that people who want to participate must ask to join the Facebook group, which has more than 600 members. One of the organizers of the Brunswick Community United Facebook group, school board member Sarah Singer, says that no one from Brunswick has been turned away.
The simplest solution to this problem is to open the group to everyone by making it public because under Maine’s open meeting laws, public meetings are open to the entire public, not just residents of a specific town. Except for executive sessions, “all public proceedings must be open to the public and any person must be permitted to attend a public proceeding,” reads Maine’s Freedom of Access law.
The more complicated issue is determining whether the Brunswick discussions constitute “public proceedings.” That’s where it gets murky. Murray Weed, an expert on social media for municipal officials, created an “ open meetings continuum.” At one end are meetings and teleconferences — clearly meetings that must be open to the public. At the other are letters and email correspondence, which aren’t meetings but are public records. Facebook and Twitter exchanges fall in the middle without clear definition as a meeting or not.
In Brunswick, officials are using the Facebook group to discuss matters they may soon vote on — sometimes even seconding one another’s positions.
According to Bangor Daily News reporting (a BDN reporter is a member of the group), recent discussions on the page have focused on delaying school start times and moving fifth-graders to the town’s junior high school — issues the full school board may vote on in the future. Last fall, the group endorsed group member Christopher Watkinson as a candidate for the school board.
A recent Facebook conversation about school building renovation and construction, including Brunswick’s next steps after the town council’s rejection of a $12.6 million school repair bond, was primarily driven by three school board members.
“It’s certainly concerning, particularly if they’re talking about substantive matters,” Brenda Kielty, the state’s public access ombudsman, told the BDN. “They can’t take action because it’s not a quorum of the board, but certainly if they’re having conversations that are going to be informing their decision-making on the board, and may be influencing each other’s positions, then it starts to sound like deliberations.”
The group currently includes four town councilors and four school board members. While this is not a quorum for either group, it appears to trigger the requirement that notice of the “meeting” be made public.
“Public notice shall be given for all public proceedings … if these proceedings are a meeting of a body or agency consisting of 3 or more persons,” the Freedom of Access law stipulates. “This notice shall be given in ample time to allow public attendance and shall be disseminated in a manner reasonably calculated to notify the general public in the jurisdiction served by the body or agency concerned.”
Unless the public is notified as to when Brunswick councilors and school board members will be on Facebook, these social media proceedings appear to run afoul of this statute. Ditto with letting the public know what issues will be discussed.
The solution for Brunswick and other towns, says Weed, a Georgia attorney, may be to create official Facebook pages for both the town council and the school board. While they must be open to everyone, moderators can set parameters for participation, such as no name-calling or personal attacks. There would also be specific, well advertised times, that members of each board would be online to discuss issues with the public.
This would likely stifle some of the frank discussion that Brunswick United hoped to foster. But this is a needed tradeoff to ensure the forums don’t violate the principles of open government and run afoul of state law.