South Portland councilors conceal their votes on School Board appointment

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SOUTH PORTLAND — In what right-to-know advocates called a “misguided” and “illegal” action, city councilors voted by secret ballot Wednesday to appoint Matthew Perkins to the School Board.

City Clerk Emily Scully announced the vote was 5-2 in favor of Perkins over James Doane, although how individual councilors voted was not disclosed to the public.

The City Council interviewed the two candidates in public during a special workshop preceding their Feb. 22 meeting.

During the meeting that followed, the council voted 7-0 to fill the board vacancy by secret ballot. Councilors decided a secret vote would be more similar to how residents vote during an election, in private at the polls.

Mayor Patti Smith could not be reached Thursday morning. But Councilor Eben Rose explained the decision by saying the secret vote eliminated undue pressure or influence that might favor one candidate over another, and reduce bias among councilors.

He said after one candidate is nominated and it becomes an up or down vote, it is unfair to the other candidates, as well as to councilors. Rose said fairness was key and procedural justice is important.

Rose said the secret ballot is an option available to the council  – ostensibly under Roberts Rules of Order – and it “was in our right to do this.”

Mal Leary, senior political correspondent at Maine Public Broadcasting, who is president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, strongly disagreed.

“Can’t do it,” Leary said Thursday. “It’s illegal.”

As for Rose’s explanation, he said, “I have no idea what that means. That sounds like a cop-out of the worst kind.”

Leary said the public has a right to know how councilors voted, and the action could undermine Perkins’ legitimacy as a member of the School Board because his appointment was improper.

“The problem you have when a board does something like this is the very action’s legality is brought into question,” he said, adding that the council should contact its attorney. “Someone could go and say, ‘Hey, (Perkins), you can’t participate (on the School Board), you weren’t appointed properly.’”

Judy Meyer, executive editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston and a member of the Maine Right to Know Advisory Committee, said, “There is no secret voting under (Maine’s Freedom of Access Act).”

“They are elected officials and must vote in public,” Meyer said.

“I understand the rational, but it is misguided,” she added. “Fairness is not a measuring stick.”

Councillor Claude Morgan on Wednesday said having the council appoint a School board member to fill a vacancy was not his preference, and it was an awkward position for councilors.

But Rose said it was an expedient process that had to be followed because there was no opportunity to hold an election.

Perkins, 39, was appointed to replace Libby Reynolds, who resigned in January after serving little more than a year. The 15-year resident of South Portland ran against Reynolds in November 2015, losing by just more than 250 votes.

Perkins and his wife Monica have three children who attend Dyer Elementary School. He said he wouldn’t be afraid to speak up and tackle difficult issues such as childhood obesity, bullying and childhood/teen suicide.

“I think the most important issues facing the board currently are working with the state to determine a final plan of action for the middle school(s’) renovations/new construction and delivering an effective budget to the city council this Spring,” Perkins said in an email.

Perkins also said he campaigned in “favor of later start times back in 2015 and was happy to see the board move forward with new times for South Portland starting next year.”

Staff writer Callie Ferguson contributed to this report. Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or Follow her on Twitter@melaniesochan.

Matthew Perkins takes an oath at Wednesday’s City Council meeting to serve on the South Portland School Board.