FREEPORT — Town councilors got a lesson on legal issues Tuesday.
They reviewed Town Council rules and procedures – including conflict of interest guidelines, public comment practices and budget reporting – with town attorney Rob Crawford of Bernstein Shur, and spent a considerable amount of time discussing an email policy that was adopted last January.
The policy advises councilors to use a town email account for all town business to “protect the individual Town Councilor from having his or her personal computer subject to public inspection under the Freedom of Access Act.”
Chairman Jim Cassida said the policy creates a place for all town correspondence and documents to be stored, so in the event of a Freedom of Access request, the information is easily accessible. The email is also stored on a town server, he said.
While Crawford said the email protocol “makes a tremendous amount of sense,” he reminded the councilors that all town-related electronic correspondence – whether from a phone, work computer or personal computer – is considered a public document and is subject to search under a Freedom of Access request.
“I think it’s a great policy to use (town email), have it archived by the town and have it backed up by the town because then it can be controlled and managed …,” he said, especially in the event of frequent requests. “This is one way of making it a little bit easier and more efficient to address (frequent requests) because you get good at responding to the Freedom of Access requests.”
Cassida also said he would like to review and implement a Freedom of Access policy for the town. He drafted a policy about a year ago, he said, but it was never formally adopted.
In other business the council agreed to be more consistent with the three-minute public comment period at the beginning of each council meeting, unless the council grants an extension.
They also discussed what constitutes a conflict of interest.
Councilor Sara Gideon, who is a director of Freeport Community Services, noted that most councilors also serve on volunteer and nonprofit boards, making it difficult to step down each time an issue comes before the council.
Crawford said as long as the councilor discloses involvement with an organization or their relationship to an issue, the remaining councilors can take a vote or reach consensus on whether that connection will impact a decision.
“One of the undercurrents of these standards is recognizing there has to be some balance, or else you are never going to be able to find anybody who is absolutely pure in all ways from conducting public affairs,” Crawford said.
The council also reviewed the budget format as required by the Town Charter and determined that while the current budget reporting system is accurate, they will take the necessary steps to report budget figures that comply with the charter.
The Town Charter requires an overview of the budget, a report of all estimated income, and figures to compare actual and estimated income and expenditures of the current fiscal year and the previous fiscal year.
Town Manager Dale Olmstead Jr. said the budget information is available as required by the charter and the figures are recorded as they should be, but by time the budget is delivered to council, all of those numbers have changed.
The council will hold a financial workshop on Tuesday, Dec. 6, from 5-7 p.m. in council chambers. A council meeting will follow at 7 p.m.