South Portland’s new mayor, Thomas Coward, threw a party last weekend to celebrate his inauguration. He invited his friends and supporters, and other city councilors.
But he didn’t invite the press, and that was wrong.
Here is part of the press release Coward distributed on Dec. 10 to reporters who cover the city:
“I wanted to let you know that I plan to have a party this weekend to celebrate my inauguration as Mayor of South Portland. Though I plan to invite other City Councilors to this social event, it is not designed to be a Council gathering as I have invited other supporters and acquaintances. Questions may be raised about whether this party constitutes a ‘public meeting.’ The answer is ‘no,’ such a social gathering is not a public meeting so long as any City Councilors present do not discuss City business with one another. I have reminded my fellow Councilors of their obligation not to discuss City business amongst themselves at social gatherings, and I have every confidence that we as Councilors can discipline ourselves in this regard.”
We understand and appreciate Coward’s desire to celebrate his success. But under the Maine Freedom of Access Act, whether a gathering of public officials constitutes a public meeting or not is determined by the guest list, not by the suggested topic of conversation or a promise that those officials won’t discuss public business. As far as we know, there’s no exemption to the Maine FOAA for an inauguration event, which by its very name and purpose suggests an association with city affairs.
The only way to be sure the council won’t illegally conduct the public’s business in private is to a) not conduct such gatherings, or b) open the doors to the press and public.
Coward’s confidence in his colleagues’ ability to refrain from discussing city business at a social gathering is admirable, but unrealistic. In a city where the School Board has made a habit of neglecting the public’s right to know, the new mayor’s attitude is worrisome. He made access to elected officials available to his supporters – and excluded those who don’t share his views? – in what was likely a “lubricated” setting. It fails the straight-face test to believe city business was not a topic of conversation.
Instead of sending reporters a disinvitation, Coward should have invited them to spend some time making nothing but small talk with councilors and other guests. South Portland city councilors should have said thanks, but no thanks, to the mayor’s invitation.