Freeport may face rights panel complaint on petition procedure

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FREEPORT — Discussion at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting suggests Freeport is the subject of a complaint at the Maine Human Rights Commission.

The complaint was reportedly prompted by the procedure being used to collect signatures to overturn the Town Council’s decision to move emergency dispatch to Brunswick.

Under the Town Charter, the petition must be signed at Town Hall in the presence of the town clerk, which essentially bars residents from signing who are home bound or otherwise unable to travel.

A commission staffer in Augusta on Tuesday said existance of a complaint cannot be confirmed until an investigation is complete and the matter is placed on a commission agenda.

But during the council meeting, Councilor Charlotte Bishop made a formal Freedom of Information request of all councilors, asking for any correspondence that has to do with the complaint.

Councilor Eric Pandora told the council and Town Manager Dale Olmstead he had questions to ask the town attorney before relinquishing any correspondence.

But Olmstead told the councilors all their correspondence on town business is public, regardless of where or how it is received.

“I can have any reporter come in here and ask for my last five e-mails,” Olmstead said. “It’s all public information.”

Councilors agreed to discuss the complaint in executive session on May 11. But their discussion Tuesday revealed various interpretations of the state’s Freedom of Access Act guidelines.

Bishop said she welcomes phone conversations with constituents over written correspondences – which avoids creating a paper trail – and Pandora said some of his town correspondences are allowed to be kept confidential.

Maine’s “Right to Know” law treats e-mail no differently than other forms of communication; it prohibits the conduct and discussion of business except at public meetings, subject to exemptions provided under the law.

The discussion also touched on the petition that would overturn the council decision to move dispatch to Brunswick, although Council Chairman Bill Muldoon said he did not want to “muddy the waters” by discussing the two together.

“The Town Council has spoken,” he said.

Olmstead said town staff has made accommodations for those who cannot make it to Town Hall to sign the dispatch petition.

“Our staff is willing to go to the homes of shut-ins and go into parking lots,” Olmstead said. “No one has been disadvantaged. This suggestion is demoralizing to staff.”

Finally, Pandora submitted a proposed ordinance that would maintain and provide dispatch services locally within the town, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The proposal would not allow the council to contract with another governmental or non-governmental entity to provide dispatch services except to sub-contract technology, services or supplies.

Although many of the councilors disagreed with Pandora that the proposed language was an ordinance to be added to the charter, it was agreed that the the town’s attorney would review the ordinance, answer additional questions regarding charter changes and council correspondences regarding the complaint filed to the Human Rights Commission.

In other business, the Town Council unanimously approved the extension of the Park Street Tax Increment Financing District V. The vote will allow the extension of School Street, and allow Bow Street Market to develop from 5,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet as a mixed-use area with apartments, shops and parking.

In addition, the council unanimously referred Freeport Housing Trust’s proposal for a three-story, 22-unit senior housing project on South Street to the Project Review Board. The project would be the first to consider contract zoning. It would expand Oakleaf Terrace to a 7,100-square-foot footprint, which is more than current zoning allows.

Jim Hatch, executive director of the Freeport Housing Trust, said the project meets every other guideline of the existing zone.

The council is also expected to approve an operating budget at its May 11 meeting. All budget materials are available on the town website.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or