Lawmakers created a blue ribbon commission to look at funding for Maine’s educational system, from kindergarten through college. But at Gov. Paul LePage’s insistence, the first meeting was held in private at the Blaine House.
The attorney general’s office said that’s a violation of the state’s open meetings law.
Members of the Legislature’s Education Committee, the Maine Education Association, the Maine School Management Association and reporters were turned away from the first meeting of the commission held at the Blaine House on Monday morning. They were told they were not invited by LePage.
But the commission was created by the Legislature, and the state’s open meetings law is clear: Any meetings of any group created by the Legislature must be open to the public.
In an email to MPBN, Attorney General Janet Mills backed that up.
“I know of no exemption,” she wrote.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport sponsored the bill that created the commission. He said the open meetings law is important, and it was not his intention that the first meeting be private.
“To the extent that that wasn’t followed today, obviously I had no control over that,” he said. “But to the extent that, going forward, there have been assurances that these meetings will be open.”
Fredette said there was confusion leading up to the meeting about whether it were a formal meeting of the commission or an informal discussion over breakfast with the governor, highlighting education issues the group will explore. But the agenda sent to members of the group by the chairman, Deputy Education Commissioner Bill Beardsley, clearly labeled the session as “the first meeting of the group.”
“It should have been an open meeting,” said Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, who was one of those turned away at the Blaine House gate. “We think it fits in the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] law, and it should have been a public meeting over there for anybody that wanted to attend, and I think it violated our access, public access.”
Walker said Tayla Edlund, the 2016 Maine Teacher of the Year, serves on the commission, and members of the Maine Education Association, or MEA, wanted to attend the meeting to assist her with any research she may need as part of the commission’s work.
Fredette said what is important is the commission’s work and, going forward, that it be done in public.
“Going forward, the most important piece is we make sure those meetings are open and that we have those in a transparent way,” he said.
Two Democratic members of the commission — Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland and Assistant House Majority Leader Sara Gideon of Freeport — said they protested the closed meeting but were rebuffed by the governor.
“This entire commission is about public education,” Gideon said. “Every member of the public should be able to weigh in should they want to.”
Gideon and Alfond said they will not participate in any future meetings that are closed, though they attended the Blaine House meeting to hear what was said. They and Fredette said they have been assured future meetings will be held in public.
But when that question was put to the governor’s office, press secretary Adrienne Bennett issued a statement criticizing the MEA and the media. She said the Blaine House meeting was “an informal, get-to-know-you gathering in a relaxed setting” before the commission gets down to work.
At the request of reporters, the Department of Education released several different reports provided to members of the commission. They totaled more than 60 pages.