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For now, Scarborough councilors avoid muzzling committee members

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For now, Scarborough councilors avoid muzzling committee members

SCARBOROUGH — A decision by councilors on Wednesday to remove a paragraph entitled "Interaction with the Media" before approving a procedures manual has for now warded off the appearance of council censorship of committee members.

In an attempt to clean up language and clarify procedures and positions for the town's council-appointed boards and committees, the Rules and Policies Committee, consisting of Chairman Mike Wood and Councilors Judy Roy and Carol Rancourt, added a new paragraph for committee members in what was referred to in the table of contents as "dealing" with the press.

"Before a member of any Town committee/board speaks to the media relating to an issue with a particular committee/board, they should first contact the Council Liaison or Town Manager," the paragraph stated.

The language, which Wood acknowledged Thursday morning was "overly restrictive and not practical," was added at least in part because of an incident two years ago involving the Conservation Commission, he said. At that time, commission members angered many of the councilors when some of them filed a petition with the Board of Environmental Protection that raised questions about wastewater treatment plans in Eastern Village, a development close to Scarborough Marsh that the Planning Board had recently approved.

Though the petitioners said they acted as individuals and not as a town-appointed group, the petition drew harsh criticism from many town officials, who charged the commission had acted inappropriately.

Wood said the intent of the new paragraph was not to curtail board members' right to free speech or to inhibit the media from contacting committee members, but to ensure members "are mindful they are representing not just themselves but the committees and, in essence, the town."

"When I took a second, third look at it, it didn't get put on paper in the spirit in which we discussed it," he said. "It's clear we've got to work on that again. I've been on enough committees and boards to know I certainly wouldn't want to be handcuffed in that manner."

When the manual was presented during Wednesday's meeting, Councilor Jessica Holbrook was the first to protest the language.

"I don't necessarily think this would be a good avenue to go down," she said.

Councilor Karen D'Andrea previously expressed objections to Rancourt and, in an e-mail message, to Town Clerk Tody Justice. D'Andrea was unable to attend the meeting due to illness.

"This immediately raises some questions for me: Why should a member of a Town board/committee contact their liaison or Town Manager? What is the purpose? Is this for permission?," D'Andrea said in the e-mail. "Citizens who serve ... are approved by the Council Appointments Committee and are held in the trust of the Town to serve ... just as Council members are. It feels like Big Brother to me. That is not why the Town charges citizens to serve on these committees/boards."

Rancourt proposed an amendment to change the language that would require committee members to alert the liaison or town manager that the press was making inquiries, but that would not restrict any member from speaking on the record.

The amendment failed, but the manual was accepted after Wood proposed adopting it without the paragraph, with the understanding the language would be changed and the proviso could be added as an amendment at a later time.

While the vote was unanimous, some councilors had defended the original paragraph.

"It's well-written and before any committee member talks to the media, I would hope they would go to the councilor or the town manager," Councilor Ron Ahlquist said. "I'm not concerned about the deadlines of the local papers."

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.