Amid criticism, Freeport council amends investment policy, removes restrictions on anonymous materials

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FREEPORT — Anonymous publications or materials will no longer be monitored and removed from the entrance of Town Hall by town staff.

Prompted by the distribution of an anonymous publication called the Crow’s Nest – a parody of town business, politics and public officials that has been distributed periodically in town for about 25 years – on Tuesday the Town Council repealed an administrative policy that allows people to put publications in the entrance of Town Hall as long as the documents have a name, contact information or something indicating ownership.

The same policy allows town staff to remove those documents if they fail to indicate ownership.

But at the Jan. 17 meeting, councilors followed the legal advice provided by town attorney Geoff Hole in a letter, cautioning against “picking and choosing the messages it allows to remain posted at Town Hall.”

Richard P. Flewelling, assistant director of the legal services department at the Maine Municipal Association, advised that “almost any limitation on free speech will be subject to strict scrutiny by the courts … and there is a significant risk, in my opinion, that the town’s policy of prohibiting un-sourced materials in the town office lobby may be vulnerable to a successful constitutional challenge, with the attendant legal expenses and potential liabilities.”

While the councilors agreed to follow legal advice and allow any materials regardless of authorship to be distributed in the entrance of Town Hall, they also decided to get additional information on what can be restricted by law.

Investment policy

In other business, the council voted unanimously to amend the town’s investment and fund balance policies.

With input from the public, the council amended the town’s investment policy. The primary objective of the policy is to ensure that the town’s reserve and trust funds are “properly invested in a conservative and balanced portfolio of fixed income and equity investments.”

The council voted to change the blend from 70 percent invested in fixed income and 30 percent in equities, to 75 and 25 percent.

Town Finance Director Abbe Yacoben said the change has decreased the town’s investment risk considerably.

The town’s investment policy has come under scrutiny by critics who have called it unnecessarily risky.

Now, the bond funds will only be allowed in the equities portion of the reserve account, and the 75 percent of fixed income is not subject to market risk, Yacoben said.

Telos Road resident Marie Gunning made a series of suggestions that the council agreed were worthy of further discussion. She asked that the word “conservative” be more clearly defined so that a future council and finance director will understand the town practices, and she suggested the town screen unsavory investments and seek socially responsible investment options.

She also suggested the finance director report out more than once a year and that the town should go out to bid for financial services.

The council agreed to adopt the investment policy with the understanding they will continue the discussion at the next council meeting.

Similarly, the council voted to increase the minimum fund balance with the understanding that the discussion will continue at the next council meeting.

The fund balance will increase from having one month’s worth of expenses in the reserve, or $1.9 million, to having 1 1/2 months, or $2.8 million, an increase of about $900,000. Yacoben said according to the Government Finance Officers Association, it is standard practice to have two months in reserve.

“This 1 1/2 month policy is a reasonable compromise,” she said.

In addition, Yacoben will report to the council to discuss the status of the reserve account before the budget process. The council will continue discussions in the coming weeks on how best to use any funds over the reserve – whether to put money aside for long term goals, school assistance or capitol needs.

The next council meeting is Tuesday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @amy_k_anderson.

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