Editor's Notebook: Topsham, South Portland officials snub the public's right to know

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Twice in the last couple of weeks, The Forecaster has reported on instances in which elected local officials have either seemed ignorant about or, worse, in defiance of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

In Topsham, one selectman had to cite chapter and verse from the right-to-know law in an attempt to obtain copies of e-mail messages and documents in the possession of another selectman – who, rather than just turning over the information, was waiting for her colleague to submit a formal, written request under the FOA statute.

In South Portland, School Board members said they reached a consensus to support the appointment of an interim board member via private telephone calls.

Both episodes challenge the public’s right to know.

The FOA Act is clear about the definition of a public record:

“… Any written, printed or graphic matter or any mechanical or electronic data compilation from which information can be obtained … that is in the possession or custody of an agency or public official … and has been received or prepared for use in connection with the transaction of public or governmental business or contains information relating to the transaction of public or governmental business … .”

So in the case described last week in our Mid-Coast edition, any e-mail messages, letters or other correspondence sent by constituents to Selectman Sandra Consolini and related to matters before the Board of Selectmen, must be considered public documents.

Consolini’s decision to wait for Selectman JimTrusiani to file a formal FOA request to obtain these documents – while she freely quoted from other constituents’ messages that incorrectly suggested she should withhold the information – shows contempt both for Trusiani and for the public’s right to know.

In the other example, the South Portland School Board reached a consensus about an interim board appointee in a series of private telephone calls, while relying on the superintendent of schools to present the consensus as a formal “request” to the City Council.

After Superintendent Suzanne Godin revealed the process to a reporter, and represented herself as the trunk of the phone tree and the official responsible for shepherding the appointment, other board members tried to distance the school chief from the process.

In defending Godin, Chairman Rick Carter told a reporter that not only was there nothing wrong with the board’s consensus-by-telephone technique (under the FOA Act, there is plenty wrong when an elected government board makes decisions without benefit of a public meeting), but that such a private discussion is OK because it involved a personnel matter (remember, we’re talking about a candidate for the School Board, not a School Department employee).

Carter even went so far as to suggest board members routinely use telephone calls to reach consensus on issues before they hold public discussions. If so, that makes them habitual FOA offenders.

Our Southern edition story incorrectly reported that Godin played a role in two other recent additions to the board. Although that information was based on information provided by the superintendent, it was wrong, and we regret having accepted it at face value. School Board members have suggested this inaccuracy should cast doubt on the veracity of the rest of the information in the story.

I strongly disagree.

Godin claimed responsibility for the appointment procedure. She defended it by saying the previous two appointments were handled the same way. And the City Council affirmed the most recent appointment in an open, public meeting, where the appointment was presented as a “request” of the School Board.

The implications don’t change because this was the first time or the third time (we can only hope it’s the last time) and neither does the conclusion reached in our editorial: the superintendent of schools should not be involved in the selection of her supervisors, the appointment process should be dumped in favor of special elections, and the School Board needs a lesson in the public’s right to know.

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mehlsak-mugshot-op.jpgMo Mehlsak is editor of The Forecaster. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 107 or mmehlsak@theforecaster.net. You can also follow Mo @mmehlsak on Twitter.

Editor of The Forecaster; prior reporting/editing gigs at Automotive Age magazine, Daily News of Los Angeles, Biddeford Journal Tribune; Syracuse U. Orange-bleeder; lifelong NY Yankees fan, longtime resident of Red Sox Nation.