Editorial: South Portland right-to-know training won't come a day too soon

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The South Portland City Council has a lot on its plate.

There’s the NGL Supply Terminal Co. proposal for a liquid petroleum gas depot at Rigby Rail Yard, traffic and parking practices in Knightville, the lawsuit over the city’s tar sands ban, consideration of an economic development plan, and a possible ban on pesticide use, to name just a few pending issues.

But first, councilors will have a training session with the state’s public access ombudsman about their responsibilities under the state Freedom of Access Act.

Fortunately, that shouldn’t take much time from the council’s busy agenda, because the rules protecting the public’s right to know are really quite simple: if councilors want to discuss city business, their discussions – with rare, specific exceptions – must be held in a public meeting. Period.

The state law is augmented by South Portland’s own protocol, which requires councilors to use city-provided email accounts for city business, and to limit electronic communications to discussions of “non-substantive matters” like meeting schedules and agendas.

FOAA training for new councilors is usually conducted soon after every council election, either in person or via a pre-recorded video. Councilors also receive a written copy of the city’s protocol.

Councilor Brad Fox has said he went through the process after he was elected a year ago, but he apparently needs a refresher; for several months he has been using his private email to try to engage other councilors and the city manager on the LPG issue.

Other councilors need the refresher, too, since they allowed Fox to continue his habit – which keeps his emails from the light of public scrutiny – until Councilor Claude Morgan finally objected publicly last month.

As reported by The Forecaster’s Alex Acquisto, Fox initially tried to brush off Morgan’s criticism, saying “I don’t know what Councilor Morgan is talking about.” Then he admitted the practice, telling Acquisto “I email as much information as I can gather about this issue to as many people as I can, including councilors.”

FOAA compliance isn’t very complicated. Councilors just have to follow the law: Don’t discuss city business in private. Don’t use private email. If you have to think twice about the email you’re sending, or the meeting you’re planning at the local coffee shop, just don’t do it. Be transparent and do what’s right.

South Portland’s councilors have to understand that the public’s business must be done in public, and it’s their responsibility to make sure that’s what happens. Fox was wrong, and so were his council colleagues when they failed to tell the public what he was doing and allowed it to continue until Morgan belatedly blew the whistle.