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Gov. Janet Mills’ administration held eight remote meetings with members of the Legislature over the past month. Neither the Legislature nor the administration provided advance notice to the public that the meetings were happening, and they provided no way for members of the public to participate — all violations of the state’s open meetings laws.
A spokesperson for Mills said Thursday that the administration is temporarily stopping the briefings, following questions from the Bangor Daily News this week about the remote meetings. Lindsay Crete said the governor’s office will halt the meetings until it can figure out how to answer lawmakers’ questions during the coronavirus pandemic in a way that follows the state’s open meetings laws.
The Legislature is not able to make decisions while adjourned, and Crete said the meetings were intended to answer lawmakers’ questions. The officials who briefed lawmakers provided information to them that they have provided to the public as well, she said.
But under Maine law, public bodies are required to provide the public advance notice of their meetings. They are supposed to keep records of those meetings, and they have to allow members of the public to attend — things that neither the Legislature nor the Mills administration did in this situation.
Crete said the meetings, held as conference calls and Zoom meetings, were meant to address lawmakers’ questions as the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated and that “the information provided during those briefings is information that the Administration also attempts to provide publicly through daily media briefings, news interviews, or responses to questions from members of the media.”
Before it adjourned last month, the Maine Legislature passed an emergency bill outlining how public bodies could conduct business while adhering to social distancing requirements meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Legislature allowed itself to hold in-person meetings of its full chambers and individual committees while prohibiting members of the public from attending in person. But the provision didn’t exempt the Legislature from the public notice requirement. It allowed the Legislature to limit public attendance at those sessions to remote means such as video and audio.
Sigmund Schutz, a partner at the law firm Preti Flaherty in Portland and a specialist in Maine’s open government laws, said the law “at most eliminates the ability to attend in person,” but “doesn’t interfere with the public’s right to access.”
A spokesman for the Maine Attorney General’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the briefings.
Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman held four calls open to the full Legislature on March 24, March 26, April 2 and April 9, said Crete.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also held four calls that were open to the full Legislature. Those calls happened on March 20, March 27, April 3 and April 10, Crete said.
In addition, Commissioner Randall Liberty of the Maine Department of Corrections held two meetings, both on Wednesday, for lawmakers. One of the calls was with Republican members of the Legislature, and the other was with Democrats, as first reported by the Portland Press Herald.
There has been a heightened interest in those agencies’ activities as coronavirus cases have grown in the state and unemployment filings have surged to record levels and claimants have been unable to connect with specialists on Department of Labor phone lines. The Department of Corrections hasn’t yet recorded a coronavirus case in an inmate, but has been working to release some inmates early to reduce the prison population.
On Thursday morning, after the BDN had asked questions about the remote meetings, Crete said the Mills administration was “temporarily postponing any further meetings until it is able to work with the Legislature to determine the best process to respond to their questions in a transparent way as we all work to adapt to changes driven by the virus.”
Watch: Maine CDC, Gov. Janet Mills press conference, April 16