Editorial: Falmouth resident's tactics give watchdogs a bad name

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An enlightened, vigilant citizenry is one of the best watchdogs on local government. But when vigilance leads to vigilantism, things tend to get ugly. 

That’s the case in Falmouth, where resident Michael Doyle is on a crusade to convince people their town government is broken. Sometimes, on some issues, he may be even be right. But his approach is all wrong.

Besides using the public forums available to all citizens to raise awareness – speaking at town meetings, writing letters, buying newspaper ads – Doyle has done things that would turn off even those who share his opinions.

He verbally threatened and tried to coerce Councilor Bonny Rodden into not seeking re-election. He orchestrated an unsuccessful recall campaign against Councilor Cathy Breen using questionably obtained petition signatures. He has used the public podium at council meetings to bait, berate and abuse councilors and town employees. He once, intentionally or not, led employees at Cape Elizabeth High School to believe he was an employee of The Forecaster (he isn’t) in an effort to obtain comparative information to use against the Falmouth School Department.

According to Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore, Doyle has made at least 18 requests for information to the town in the last six months under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. The topics range from details about a crosswalk project, to computer training received by Rodden, to utility costs at all municipal and school buildings (the latter led to a proposal from Doyle to sell services to the town). Poore estimates that reading, interpreting and responding to Doyle’s e-mail messages – which are sometimes less than clearly written – has occupied at least two weeks of his time. Not to mention the time, and salaries, of other town staff.

“A lot of what he is doing is counterproductive to saving any money,” Poore said.

As a result of Doyle’s antics, the Town Council considered clamping down on public speech at its meetings. But councilors wisely backed down after being warned by the press and the Maine Civil Liberties Union about going down that unconstitutional path.

Now, the town may adopt a revised FOAA protocol intended to better manage Doyle’s mountain of paperwork. Not surprisingly, instead of requiring town employees to cut through the e-mail haze, it includes routine – and costly – reliance on an attorney as gatekeeper. We’ll be watching to make sure it doesn’t penalize those who make legitimate use of the FOAA procedure.

Doyle’s latest strategic move is suing the Falmouth Town Council in Small Claims Court to recover money he claims was wasted when the town assigned a police officer to attend council meetings where Doyle was expected to be present. He also wants the court to order councilors to pay $6,000 for damage allegedly done to his reputation.

Never mind the obvious questions about whether Small Claims Court is the proper venue for Doyle’s action or whether his claims even have any merit. Falmouth has endured Doyle’s derision of its elected officials and town employees long enough. Voters ignored his recall campaign. They re-elected Rodden. And even councilors who may share his goal of fiscal restraint shake their heads at his methods. Now it’s time for Doyle to tone down his rhetoric, change his approach and stop wasting the town’s time and money with a frivolous lawsuit and endless, convoluted and pointless requests for town documents.

One Falmouth resident and business owner put it this way last week: “Can I sue him for sucking up the town’s resources?”

It’s a good question, and one Doyle should ponder before he fires off his next e-mail.