Editorial: South Portland City Council is transparently flawed

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The gang that couldn’t shoot straight – a.k.a. the South Portland City Council – misfired again last week.

In a mind-boggling display of how little they understand or value the state law that protects the public’s right to know, councilors voted by secret ballot to appoint Matthew Perkins to a vacant seat on the School Board.

Here’s the most amazing thing: they either didn’t care about the law or were too ignorant to even try to hide what they did.

They didn’t sneak into a surprise executive session. They didn’t operate behind closed doors. They did it in the open, where everyone could watch. In fact, while paying lip service to their obligation to transparency, they boasted about how smart they were to be voting by secret paper ballots.

Never have so many been so transparent about being so opaque. See for yourself on the city website; the jaw-dropping discussion begins at the 70-minute mark.

Spoiler alert: It’s alarming, embarrassing – and arguably illegal.

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act defines how and when a governing body like the City Council can discuss business in private. And it makes no exceptions for secret votes. Even after an allowable closed-door discussion, which this was not, decisions based on those discussions – the actual votes – must be public, so that individual elected officials can be held accountable.

In the Feb. 22 council meeting, the discussion was entirely public, but the voting wasn’t.

It all began when Councilor Eben Rose moved for a secret ballot on the order to appoint the School Board member. He didn’t request a “straw poll,” or an “informal” vote; he asked for a “secret ballot.” Councilor Brad Fox, who has been unapologetic about his prior disregard for the public’s right to know, seconded the motion.

It passed unanimously, and astoundingly, 7-0. If you were watching at home during the discussion, and had the word “transparent” in a drinking game, you would have been tipsy by the time Rose, Fox, Councilors Claude Morgan and Linda Cohen, and Mayor Patti Smith finished professing their commitment to transparency and open government – before making excuses for an exception in this case.

They essentially claimed it would be too embarrassing to the candidates and the councilors to vote, as the law requires, under the glare of public scrutiny.

“We all today take the place of citizens who would be voting behind closed doors,” Morgan said, trying to explain that voting secretly would remove “a crimp in the hose.” Smith said voting is “a private issue,” which is true – unless you’re an elected official conducting city business.

And so, without a peep from City Attorney Sally Daggett or interim City Manager Don Gerrish, they voted secretly.

The result, as announced immediately by City Clerk Emily Scully, was 5-2 for Perkins. Who were the two who voted for James Doane? Your guess is as good as ours (although our money is on Rose and Fox, since they requested the secret ballot).

Councilors will try to suggest they did nothing wrong, since two unanimous, show-of-hands votes – to try to cover their tracks by officially “nominating” Perkins and amending the original order – followed the secret ballot. But the damage, and disregard for the public’s right to know, had already been done.

The two “public” votes were so inconsequential, in fact, that immediately after the secret ballot and before any show of hands took place, Cohen congratulated Perkins on his “win.”

During the brief discussion that preceded the secret ballot, Morgan made another interesting statement: “In theory,” he said, “we do everything transparently.”

Wrong. It’s not theory. It’s the law, and the council clearly ignored it.

That can’t be denied or changed. But it can be corrected.

Perkins – who risks having the legitimacy of his appointment questioned – should decline to serve unless the council votes again, in the light of day. If he doesn’t, the School Board should demand a do-over. Better yet, councilors should admit their mistake and restart the process.

If they don’t, maybe it’s time for Brenda Kielty, the attorney general’s Freedom of Access ombudsman, to step in.

And if nothing else, the voters of South Portland should demand greater transparency, accountability, and respect for open government from their elected officials. They should also be wondering whose interests their city councilors really have at heart.

If councilors are more concerned about hurt feelings than they are about abiding by Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, or if they’re too cowardly to vote in the open, but not at all embarrassed by their blatant disregard for the public’s right to know, maybe they don’t deserve to serve in the first place.