HARPSWELL — Residents can no longer discuss the town’s relationship with School Administrative District 75 during public comment at Board of Selectmen meetings.
Citing a year-old clause in the town’s public comment policy, the board has banned discussion of the topic.
The move has irked some town residents and other elected officials, who say it stifles freedom of expression and defeats the purpose of public comment.
A representative of the Maine Civil Liberties Union called the action “troubling.”
The ban was instituted by a 2-1 vote, with Chairwoman Ellie Multer and Selectman Alison Hawkes in the majority, following public comment on July 7. That meeting was marked by heated discussion between Multer, Hawkes and resident Robert McIntyre over American Disability Act compliance at Harpswell Community School.
McIntyre spearheaded a campaign to keep West Harpswell School open, led the recent petition drive to study withdrawing from SAD 75, and is considering a second petition for withdrawal this fall. He frequently attends board meetings, speaking about the town’s relationship to the school district nearly every time.
Three other town residents, including two former School Board members, also spoke about the issue at the meeting, generally disagreeing with what McIntyre had to say.
After public comment ended, Multer moved to prevent future discussion of the town’s relationship with the school district during public comment periods. Her motion was seconded by Hawkes and opposed by Selectman Jim Henderson.
Multer cited Page 60 of the town’s policy manual: “It is neither the purpose nor the intent of Public Comment to provide an arena for the repeated airing of views on on-going controversial topics unless and until such time as a topic presents a question requiring immediate action or a decision by the Board of Selectmen, at which time the issue will be placed upon the agenda.”
Multer said “the question of the relationship between SAD 75 and Harpswell now falls into that arena. We have had, in my view, a more than adequate debate.”
The ban left Henderson unsettled.
“I felt it was directed at a very specific person and issue and it would be difficult to regulate when it comes to different persons and issues,” he said in an interview.
Henderson said he worries that there was a public perception that Multer and Hawkes had instituted the ban because they disagreed with McIntyre’s point of view. Both women opposed the June 14 referendum article that would have authorized the town to spend $55,000 on a study to consider withdrawal from SAD 75.
“It is an unfortunate perception that the two folks on the board that are opposed to Mr. McIntyre’s position also decided that it should be outlawed,” Henderson said. “There’s an appearance of it being used for a particular purpose.”
McIntyre believes the policy was invoked to stifle his opinion and shut him up.
“What Multer’s trying to do is shut off comments she doesn’t agree with,” he said. “… It’s physically obvious who it’s directed at.”
Multer said that’s for others to judge. “I took my time doing this and allowed plenty of assertions before I chose to implement the rule,” she said.
She said she would have made the same decision even if she agreed with McIntyre’s position about SAD 75.
Henderson also wondered how “controversial” would be defined in the future, and suggested the ban would prevent residents from discussing whether the town should take ownership of West Harpswell School, an issue that will be decided by a vote on Aug. 23.
The ambiguity surrounding the definition of “controversial” was also a concern for Zachary Heiden, legal director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
“It’s troubling that they would give themselves the power to ban controversial speech without defining what controversial means,” Heiden said.
He said he is unaware of any other towns that have content-based restrictions on public comment. Many towns, including Harpswell, restrict public comments by time and prohibit vulgar language and personal attacks.
“This vague standard that the council is applying is without any real guidance, and the fact that the power to ban is content-based, those are all First Amendment red flags,” he said.
Last year, the MCLU sent a letter to Falmouth’s Town Council condemning a resolution that would have prohibited name-calling and abusive language at council meetings and in correspondence to councilors.
The letter’s author, volunteer attorney Kelly McDonald, argued that the proposed changes restricted public speech based on content, something that was “presumptively unconstitutional.”
“In order to meet constitutional muster,” McDonald told the council, “such a restriction must survive strict scrutiny and be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.”
Heiden said the Harpswell ban is “a little bit worse (than Falmouth’s) because they are making these content-based determinations of what’s controversial.”
The Board of Selectmen inserted the clause into its policy last August, when a handful of town residents who opposed closing West Harpswell School, including McIntyre, kept raising the issue at board meetings. Multer said she introduced the policy amendment to keep individuals from exploiting the publicity that comes with speaking at a meeting to further their personal agendas.
“I consider this use of the selectmen’s board meeting as sort of a campaign opportunity, which I think is inappropriate,” she said.
But Henderson, who supported the policy when it was implemented a year ago, said listening to someone drag on about an issue for five or 10 minutes is just part of being an elected official.
“That small amount of irritation, I think, is definitely worth absorbing,” he said, “as compared to appearing to be cutting off discussion of issues you don’t want to hear about.”
HARPSWELL — The leader of the failed campaign to withdraw from School Administrative District 75 is at it again.
Encouraged by the slim margin of June’s vote, Robert McIntyre said he and others are planning to circulate another petition this fall asking voters if they would like to fund a study that would consider educational options if the town withdraws from SAD 75. He needs 295 signatures for the item to appear on a ballot at a special Town Meeting.
But McIntyre’s determination is offensive to some residents, who say the town has been through enough school district drama.
Voters defeated the referendum, 475-450. The question asked if they would favor filing a petition for withdrawal with the School Board and the state education commissioner, and authorize the town to spend $55,000 to create a plan detailing how it would provide for the education of the 494 Harpswell students enrolled in SAD 75.
McIntyre said the petition-gathering process coincided with the West Harpswell School closure vote last fall, which left some voters with the impression the two were connected.
“With the school actually consolidated, the confusion is out of the way,” he said.
Even if the town doesn’t withdraw from SAD 75, which would require a two-thirds vote, McIntyre said he believes residents will want to consider other educational options for the town.
“I think the logic of (considering withdrawal) was very strong, and the arguments against it were always misleading or wrong,” he said.
Resident Penny Wilson disagrees, and said she wishes McIntyre wouldn’t continue to stir the pot. She spoke against McIntyre at the July 7 Board of Selectmen meeting, the last time he raised the topic in a public setting, and urged other residents not to sign a new petition.
“We do not want to spend another $55,000 at this time to explore options,” Wilson said. “Please allow the students to settle down and heal the split in this town the adults have never been able to achieve.”
Dee Carrier, a former School Board member, said she was tired of hearing the same rhetoric over and over again, and wants to lay the issue to rest.
McIntyre said he while he believes withdrawing from SAD 75 is the better option, he’s willing to listen to others who oppose another campaign.
“If nobody else agrees it’s a good idea to do it, then I wouldn’t do it,” he said.
— Emily Guerin