Portland mayor’s private emails part of his school bond effort

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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.”

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.
  • Steven Biel

    • Disqus1965

      No sale.

  • Mainer1

    Strimling, just another left wing nut bag who broke up a family with an affair of a married woman

    • Disqus1965

      And lied to the voting public throughout his entire campaign. Pretended to be the married guy who was squeaky clean, while sleeping with his campaign manager, who was also married. Nice folks.

  • Voiceofreason

    Why is it that everything Strimling/Biel/Figdor touch ends up with decided stench attached to it. They couldn’t run a school bake sale for a play ground swingset without up with some crooked scandal muddying it up

    • Disqus1965

      And this is only what the public is finding out by the grace of a reporter and some citizens who know enough to ask the right questions. Just imagine what’s really going on behind the scenes, that the public will never hear about.

  • No Thank You

    Clearly Joey Brunelle shared Emily’s emails when he was on the advisory board and is lashing out because he was asked to step down. First he secretly recorded a private phone conversation without permission and now he’s sharing private emails. To create an email scandal is a page right out of Trump’s book. He’s obviously willing to do anything to win even if it means throwing the school bond under the bus. Nevermimd how desperately bad these kids need new facilities. Nevermind how Joey said he supports it. I hope Portland stands strong against this kind of unethical behavior and total lack of moral character.

    • bjstick

      You can’t blame the little guy for fighting back against big money and political gamesmanship. That said, the nonsense that is going on with some of the campaigns is likely what will give Jill Duson her 5th term.

      • No Thank You

        He’s not the little guy. He’s just not popular because he plays a mean game. Protect Our Neighborhood Schools is mostly all moms worried about their kids. His behavior was vulgar and nasty ,period. And I feel for the woman he secretly recorded. Disgusting.

        • bjstick

          Based on your username (eva_m_humeniuk) I assume you are the one he recorded, so your comment is pretty odd. Regardless, his recording brought to light some very shady tactics from Bree’s campaign. Who is worse, the whistleblower or the target of the whistleblower? I agree that Portland should reject these kinds of tactics from all candidates and that’s why Duson looks so appealing right now. She has 16 years of service and doesn’t have a big political arm behind her. You may disagree with her for taking the difficult stance of asking Portland taxpayers for 32 million instead of 64 million with the hope that the State will help us out, but that doesn’t seem worse than the petty tactics seen elsewhere in this race.

          For what it’s worth, mean is probably the last word I’d use to describe Joey Brunelle based on what I’ve read but maybe you know something I don’t.

          • No Thank You

            No, I am not but I know her and I have heard her side of it. She is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. And from what I understand when she talked to Joey she had no idea she was being recorded. To secretly record someone who had no involvement in a petty fight between Steven and Joey is so wrong and childish. I’d take Jill over Joey any day. I’m so disgusted by Portland politics right now.

          • Disqus1965

            The apparent collusion and underhanded tactics are horrendous. Strimling should know better by now, having been a state senator. He is well aware of what the public “right to know” laws look like. Figdor should know better, too. This isn’t her first political rodeo.

            As for the school funding question, I think Duson is right that the city should wait and ask the state to fund the other $32 million. Why fund it locally if Portland can get the state to help out? I see her support for the lower measure as being fiscally prudent.

  • bjstick

    In case anyone wants to see the deleted posts from Eva Humeniuk, it started with her accusing Joey Brunelle of leaking Emily Figdor’s email and then claiming all Portlanders should stand against that behavior. Thankfully I have the other two reponses since she replied to me.
    Reply 1: “No, I am not but I know her and I have heard her side of it. She is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. And from what I understand when she talked to Joey she had no idea she was being recorded. To secretly record someone who had no involvement in a petty fight between Steven and Joey is so wrong and childish. I’d take Jill over Joey any day. I’m so disgusted by Portland politics right now.”
    Reply 2: “No, I am not but I know her and I have heard her side of it. She is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. And from what I understand when she talked to Joey she had no idea she was being recorded. To secretly record someone who had no involvement in a petty fight between Steven and Joey is so wrong and childish. I’d take Jill over Joey any day. I’m so disgusted by Portland politics right now.”
    She’s so genuine that she pretends to be “anonymous” to peddle their campaign’s agenda but is too sloppy to realize her username is her real name? Yep, genuine. Nonsense like this needs a spotlight shined on it. Press Herald? Voters need to realize the dirty politcs in play here.

    • Bud Van Lagerman

      This is amazing! Thank you so much for sharing, I’m sure I’m not alone in being curious about what she had to say.

      As far as the content, one of the biggest flaws of “Protect our Neighborhood Schools” is that it is not “mostly all moms worried about their kids”. It certainly should be. Instead its a bunch of political operators and elected officials.

      Never mind the causal sexism in assuming dads don’t care about the condition of their children’s schools…

      And, I have to say, I’m sensitive about wanting to post anonymously. It’s allowed, after all. I work in public education (all I will say about it), and prefer not to use my own name.

      • bjstick

        Posting anonymously isn’t the whole story here though. This was posting under an alias to talk about how awesome they were. If one has to invent support, maybe they don’t have any.

      • bjstick

        Posting anonymously isn’t the whole story here though. This was posting under an alias to talk about how awesome they were. If one has to invent support, maybe they don’t have any.

        • Disqus1965

          I certainly hope you’re right. They don’t deserve any support, bringing dirty tactics to Portland. They should move back where they came from, if they want to play these kinds of games.

      • Eva Humeniuk

        This is Eva and I deleted my account because I didn’t write this. I was still logged in on a friend’s computer and she didn’t realize she was responding under my account. Online commentors are vicious and I do not have the stomach for any of it. You can think whatever you like but it was an honest mistake and I am only back to respond to this. Also, for the record, the advisory board for PONs is mostly mom’s but there are many dad’s and community organizers who are actively helping the 4 School Bond too. Thank you, Eva

        • bjstick

          If you say so 🙂 I’m sure it’s easy enough for The Forecaster to check IPs if need be.

          • bjstick

            In case anyone is wondering. Eva posted claiming she left herself logged in on a friend’s computer and that it was actually a friend posting as her. This stuff is too good to make up. Tell your friends.

  • Gardner Roberts

    Strimling, Portland Progressive and PONS are all joined at the hip. Anyone not seeing thru their dispicable disregard for clean politics deserve what they vote for. Pathetic.

    • Disqus1965

      I’m glad they’re being revealed for what they are.. the public needs to know.

      • Gardner Roberts

        It thought it would be front page over the fold.

  • Disqus1965

    Great job, Forecaster and David Harry. Thanks for holding the scofflaw official accountable for his actions. Shame on him and the progressive PAC leaders for their apparent improper collusion, and withholding public information.

    Does anyone really think Strimling has only done this once?