Maine AG's office scrutinizes private meeting of Amtrak advisory group

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PORTLAND — Members of an advisory group formed to discuss the design and construction of an Amtrak Downeaster layover facility in Brunswick said their first meeting went well.

Representatives of the Brunswick West neighborhood group, which formed in opposition to Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority’s decision to build a 60,000-square-foot building near their homes, met with NNEPRA staff, Brunswick town councilors, engineers and state officials on Dec. 2 to discuss how to best mitigate the impacts of the proposed facility.

The meeting at NNEPRA’s offices was closed to the press, despite objections from three reporters who asked to be admitted. The state attorney general’s office is examining that decision by NNEPRA, which is a public transportation authority created in 1995 by the Maine Legislature.

Anna Nelson, spokeswoman for the neighborhood group, said NNEPRA officials were willing to answer questions and supplied the neighbors with more detailed information about noise levels and air quality, and provided a preliminary sketch of the building, which will be used for light maintenance and overnight housing of trains.

“It was a very open forum for questions,” she said, “I’m confident and hopeful that we’ll actually be able to effect some change.”

Nelson said she had some concerns that the Federal Transit Administration’s noise standards, which NNEPRA is using, are not as strict as her group would like. She said the neighborhood group is working with engineer Charles Wallace to come up with its own estimates of noise levels, which she plans to share with the advisory group.

Councilor John Perreault, who represents the neighborhood that surrounds the proposed location, said overall the meeting was very technical and data-heavy, but went well.

“Both sides went in with an open mind, listening to each other,” he said.

Although reporters were not allowed to enter the meeting, NNEPRA Chairman Martin Eisenstein invited two elected officials who are not advisory group members: state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, and Brunswick District 7 Town Councilor Benet Pols.

Gerzofsky argued unsuccessfully for the reporters to be admitted for at least part of the meeting. Afterwards, he said there was no business conducted that warranted a closed-door meeting.

Pols arrived late and was initially told he couldn’t join the meeting. But Eisenstein relented after Pols explained that he was only there to listen, not to participate, so that, as an elected official, he could be more informed.

Eisenstein maintained that the meeting was not public, however, and that Pols’  status was different than the reporters’. He also told the reporters their interpretation of Maine’s Freedom of Access Law was incorrect.

A written statement provided by NNEPRA after the meeting on Dec. 2 said NNEPRA’s advisory group meetings are not “public proceedings,” as defined by the law, because they are not meetings of the rail authority’s board.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner said in an email Wednesday that she is seeking information from NNEPRA before responding to inquiries about whether the rail group violated the Freedom of Access Act.

The advisory group meets again Jan. 12, 2012. In the meantime, members of the Brunswick West neighborhood group said they will continue to share their ideas with NNEPRA’s consultants about how to lessen the impact of the train facility.

The advisory group is scheduled to meet six times before the end of April 2012, when they will present their recommendations to the NNEPRA board, which will make a decision about how to proceed with the layover building.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.