PORTLAND — Mayor Ethan Strimling’s advocacy for the $64 million school construction bond has never been a secret.
How he has advocated for the bond and with whom, however, remains elusive, because Strimling has been using a private email account to communicate with Protect Our Neighborhood Schools, the political action committee set up to support the bond.
Strimling is listed as a “decision maker” on PAC campaign finance reports, but his response to a Sept. 14 Maine Freedom of Access Act request for “copies of all communications between Mayor Ethan Strimling, all members of Protect Our Neighborhood Schools and all members of the Progressive Portland Steering Committee regarding the two bond questions for school renovations on the Nov. 7, 2017, Portland ballots” elicited few communications from his official email address.
The Forecaster sent the mayor two FOAA requests seeking information about how Strimling is working with advocacy groups and how some of his policy initiatives are moving through the City Council. Both requests sought “all written notes from meetings and phone conversations, and emails from all of Mayor Ethan Strimling’s accounts.”
Also requested were all communications between the parties about a poll by Public Policy Polling on various city issues, including support for the competing $64 million and $32 million school bonds and the at-large City Council race between incumbent Councilor Jill Duson and challengers Joey Brunelle and Bree LaCasse.
One FOAA request sought communications between Strimling, his former special assistant Jason Shedlock, and staff of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council “regarding changes to tax increment finance policies approved by the Portland City Council in 2013.”
Materials from the FOAA requests were returned to The Forecaster on Oct. 10.
Before receipt of the FOAA response, The Forecaster received a copy of a Sept. 6 email from Protect Our Neighborhood Schools leader Emily Figdor to the political action committee’s advisory committee, detailing how the poll in question would be funded in part by the Maine Education Association – if poll results showed strong support for the $64 million bond over the smaller bond.
Strimling received Figdor’s email at his private email address. The email was not included in the FOAA response from the city to The Forecaster.
On Oct. 11, The Forecaster sent a new FOAA request to Strimling, city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta and city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin that included a copy of Figdor’s Sept. 6 email. The newspaper requested a renewed search, and an explanation if the city believed it had complied with the Sept. 14 FOAA requests.
Strimling, who is on vacation this week, was asked Oct. 11 about his use of private emails to communicate on policy and the referendum question.
“Anything that is government business I do on my government email,” he said, adding he would “follow (West-Chuhta’s) directions” on what else should be released to the public.
On Monday, West-Chuhta said she has not yet reviewed the renewed FOAA request or Figdor’s email, and said Strimling would be the only source for obtaining the emails that could be viewed as public documents.
After first asking how The Forecaster obtained her “confidential” Sept. 6 email, Figdor said it was not uncommon for Protect Our Neighborhood Schools to use private email addresses for city officials because the PAC is not “part of city business.”
“It is not a story,” Figdor said.
Later that day, she announced the group had asked “all candidates to resign from the Protect Our Neighborhood Schools Advisory Committee.”
Strimling, however, remains on the committee.
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.”
Attorney Sigmund Schutz of Preti Flaherty, who is also a member of the board of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said Figdor’s Sept. 6 email is part of the public record.
“(The question) is on the ballot, for God’s sake,” Schutz said. “It is the content of the communication that matters, not the email address.”
Mal Leary, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, and senior political correspondent at Maine Public Broadcasting, agreed the lines are clear between public and private communications.
“The bond issue is before the people of Portland,” Leary said. “If (Strimling) was using any sort of private account or texting on his phone, those are public records.”
Former City Councilor Ed Suslovic, chairman of the committee that oversaw construction of Hall Elementary School and an advocate of the $29.7 million bond to fund the project that passed in April 2016, said he never used private emails to communicate the committee’s business.
“I only used my council email for any and all public matters. I stayed out of any campaigning matters since I was an elected (official),” he said Oct. 12.
In his opinion, Suslovic said, the mayor should know better than to use private emails.
“Right after Ethan’s (2015) election, Ethan, (Councilor Nick Mavodones) and I attended a workshop for elected officials put on by South Portland on how to act in accord with sunshine laws,” Suslovic said. “It was stressed that you should only use your official city account for all public matters.”