South Portland council stands by secret ballot

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SOUTH PORTLAND — School Board member Matthew Perkins Wednesday said he asked Mayor Patti Smith to make public the results of the City Council’s secret-ballot vote that appointed him to the seat.

“I reached out to the mayor and asked if they would make the votes public,” Perkins said. “It’s all new to me. I don’t have any political experience. I was just trying to get on the School Board.”

But Smith on Thursday said the council won’t reconsider and is “moving on.”

“I’m not concerned about it,” the mayor said. “We did a lawful thing. I have no regrets or qualms.”

The 5-2 vote by secret ballot in favor of Perkins over James Doane on Feb. 22 was criticized last week by open-government advocates, who said the action violated Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

Smith, other councilors and city officials this week defended the procedure as legal and fair.

Interim City Manager Don Gerrish said the 5-2 vote was a “straw poll” in advance of the official nomination of Perkins.

“I have seen it happen many times,” he said. “They take a straw vote among themselves and then they take a vote. I have seen it in a number of communities.”

“It is no different than getting a consensus beforehand,” Gerrish continued. “They publicly voted in person.”

City Clerk Emily Scully said she received a request and email prior to the meeting from Councilor Eben Rose to conduct the vote by secret ballot.

Scully said she checked with the city attorney about the legality and how the process would work. She described the resulting vote as an informal vote done in public. The formal action of inserting Matthew Perkins’ name into the amendment was the legal action, Scully said.

Councilors said they were trying to be fair to School Board candidates and not trying to circumvent the Freedom of Access Act.

“(The vote) was not done to try to have the public from finding out how we voted,” Councilor Brad Fox said. “We wanted to make it fair to the candidates.”

Fox added that he didn’t care who knew how he voted. “I voted for Perkins,” Fox said. “I also voted for him in the last election.”

Councilor Maxine Beecher said she wasn’t concerned about how they did the vote.

“I cared if the city clerk looked to see if it was legal. I would be happy to have a public vote,” Beecher said.

Councilor Susan Henderson said the candidates were interviewed publicly and the final vote was in public.

“I think it was really fair. I don’t think is important who voted for who,” Henderson said.

She said it bothers her to think people may think that council was trying to be “sneaky.”

“The intent was to give everyone a chance get nominated and voted on.” Henderson said.

But Mal Leary, senior political correspondent at Maine Public Broadcasting, and president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said while councilors may have complied with the letter of the law by conducting their secret ballot “in public,” they still circumvented the spirit of open-government laws.

“It doesn’t cross the legality threshold because the public saw them do it,” Leary said this week, while stressing that councilors are elected by the citizens of South Portland and the citizens deserve to know how they voted.

“I’m not saying they didn’t have good motives, but what they didn’t think about was the right of the public to know how they voted on that person,” Leary said. “They should vote in public, so the public knows how each one voted.”

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.