Portland mayor, city attorney to meet on use of private email

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PORTLAND — Mayor Ethan Strimling is expected to meet with city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta regarding the mayor’s use of personal email for city business.

“It is my understanding that the Mayor has a meeting later this week” to review personal email items sought by The Forecaster under a Maine Freedom of Access Act request, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in an email Monday.

The Forecaster is seeking any and all communications between Strimling, past and current steering committee members of Progressive Portland, members of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, and the staff of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council regarding policy issues.

Those issues include the $64 million bond to rebuild four elementary schools and revisions to city tax increment finance policies.

Grondin’s response came after The Forecaster on Monday sought a response to an Oct. 11 second FOAA request for materials originally sought in two Sept. 14 FOAA letters, specifically asking for emails from all of Strimling’s public and private accounts.

On Oct. 11, only emails from Strimling’s public, city-administered email account were received.

But The Forecaster had already received a copy of one message, sent by Emily Figdor of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, to Strimling’s private email account. Strimling is also listed as a “decision maker” on PONS campaign finance reports.

Figdor’s email detailed how a poll conducted in early September by Public Policy Polling on behalf of Progressive Portland and Protect Our Neighborhood Schools would be funded.

The poll was a part of the Sept. 14 FOAA requests, but not a part of Strimling’s Oct. 11 response. The same day, the second FOAA was sent, saying the city and Strimling had not legally complied and needed to do so or explain why the requested materials were withheld.

“Anything that is government business I do on my government email,” Strimling said Oct. 11 when asked about use of private email accounts. He added he would follow West-Chuhta’s guidance on the renewed FOAA request, but left for vacation before they could meet.

Maine Freedom of Access laws place limits on the use of private emails by public officials:

“Even when sent or received using a member’s personal computer or e-mail account, e-mail may be considered a public record if it contains information relating to the transaction of public or governmental business unless the information is designated as confidential or excepted from the definition of a public record. As a result, members of a body should be aware that all e-mails and e-mail attachments relating to the member’s participation are likely public records subject to public inspection under the FOAA.”

West-Chuhta said the city does not have access to Strimling’s private accounts.

“I would note that it is also my understanding that as part of this request (as per the usual course of proceedings and in accordance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Act), the City has already provided an initial response to your request, as well as searched its e-mail system, hard copy records, and notified all employees/City Departments/public officials (that are involved in the request) and requested that they search their e-mail and hard copy records,” she said in an email Monday.

Figdor has said it was not uncommon for PONS to use private email addresses for elected officials while advocating for the bond. She specifically identified City Councilors Pious Ali and Justin Costa.

On Oct. 20, The Forecaster sent a FOAA letter to Grondin, seeking all communications on public and private email accounts, as well as other notes and text messages between Councilors Brian Batson, David Brenerman, Nick Mavodones, Belinda Ray, Spencer Thibodeau, Ali, Costa, Duson and members of all political action and ballot question committees regarding the four referendum questions on the Nov. 7 ballot.

As of Tuesday, only Ray had responded.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Strimling

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.