SOUTH PORTLAND — Four of the seven city councilors attended a private party last weekend to celebrate the new mayor’s inauguration.
Although the gathering on Saturday, Dec. 12, at Mayor Tom Coward’s home constituted a council quorum, neither the press nor the general public were invited.
The party appears to have taken advantage of a gray area under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. The law requires transparency in local government and that the public’s business be conducted openly in public.
The city attorney advised Coward that the gathering, which included Councilors Maxine Beecher, Rosemarie DeAngelis and Patti Smith, would not be a violation of the FOA Act, because the councilors promised not to talk about city business with each other or other guests.
Coward issued a press release prior to the event in an attempt to ward off criticism. It implied that press coverage was not invited, and did not disclose where or when the gathering would be held.
“Though I plan to invite other city councilors to this social event, it is not designed to be a council gathering as I have invited other supporters and acquaintances,” he said in the prepared statement. “Such a social gathering is not a public meeting, so long as any city councilors present do not discuss city business with one another. I have reminded my fellow councilors of their obligation not to discuss city business amongst themselves at social gatherings, and I have every confidence that we as councilors can discipline ourselves in this regard.”
Judy Meyer, vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, said gatherings like this are common, especially at this time of year. But that’s not to say that these types of gatherings do not raise questions.
“It would make me raise an eyebrow,” said Meyer, who is the managing editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, which owns The Forecaster. “It does make you wonder what they were talking about and what agenda they have been setting over cocktails.”
The debate highlights a gray area in the FOA Act. Meyer said the party may have been a technical violation of the FOA Act, but it is unlikely a court would rule that the law was violated.
Last week, Councilors Jim Hughes and Tom Blake said they thought it was great that Coward was throwing a party and they wished similar gatherings could be held more often.
Meyer, however, said they should rarely be held, because the definition of the public’s business is broad and inclusive. Councilors need not discuss a specific issue coming before the council to violate the law, she said.
“These things need to be very limited,” she said.
Blake this week acknowledged the difficulty of not talking about city business when councilors gather. Although he planned to attend the party, he said he didn’t make it because he got caught up in a home improvement project.
Councilors Linda Boudreau and Hughes said they didn’t attend the party because of prior engagements. Although the event was cleared by the city attorney, Boudreau said she was sensitive to freedom-of-access concerns.
“The minute you raised the question, I wouldn’t have gone,” Boudreau said. “There is always the appearance of conflict, even if there isn’t any.”
Coward, along with Beecher and Smith, said Wednesday that no city business was discussed at the event and that the councilors had little opportunity to speak with one another.
“It was a party; it’s my private life,” Smith said. “We were just trying to have a little fun for the holidays.”
Coward said that, even though he had a house full of people, he is confident councilors behaved themselves.
“No public business was transacted or even discussed,” he said. “Everyone had a good time, drank a lot of coffee and ate a lot of pie.”
Mo Mehlsak, editor of The Forecaster, said the mayor and council could have easily avoided questions about the event.
“If (Coward) had invited press coverage of the party, instead of suggesting it wasn’t welcome, we probably would have ignored it and not had a story,” Mehlsak said. “The pre-emptive ‘disinvitation’ itself is an admission that the gathering walks a fine line between what’s public and what’s private, and in such cases, we believe the public’s right to know should be given more weight.”
City Attorney Sally Daggett, whose law firm charges the city $150 an hour for legal services, said the city would be billed for at least a half hour of work for legal advice and responding to press inquiries about the party.
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