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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

"Maine Voices" by Ben Meiklejohn in the Portland Press Herald: August 15, 2006

About the Author

Benjamin J. Meiklejohn is anat-large member of the Portland School Committee.

To top of story

In December 2005, four Greens on the Portland School Committee presented a proposal to create a task force to consider ways to graduate every incoming kindergarten student from college by 2023.

Democrats accused Greens of violating public access laws by meeting on that topic without giving sufficient public notice. Greens were accused of "maybe" breaking the law, even though no meeting that included three or more of them ever took place.

The charge originates from interpretations of Maine law which spell out how "public notice shall be given for all public proceedings as defined if these proceedings are a meeting of a body or agency consisting of 3 or more persons." The statute further defines School Committee as an applicable "body."

While no group of three or more Greens met that December, Democrats still made accusations. In a Dec. 8 Press Herald article, attorney Jonathan Piper claimed "it is illegal for three or more members . . . to meet in person or discuss business by e-mail or telephone without giving public notice."

Numerous attorneys refute this. The committee itself is a "body" of three or more members. In Portland, it has nine. Three members of that body are, however, not themselves also a "body." The Democrats however, portray that Greens "might" be breaking the law.

If true, every elected city councilor and School Committee member in Portland breaks the law.

Three councilors or committee members are frequently seen grouping together, talking indirectly or directly about city or school business, among themselves, away from others - in parking lots, on sidewalks, in separate rooms, well outside of the commencement and adjournment of official meetings and without public notice.

Nonetheless, an unnamed colleague of mine had expressed a concern about these meetings. As a gesture of respect, Greens did what elected Democrats in Portland city government never do - ask the district to notify the media that three friends on the School Committee would meet in a public park and talk about reducing administrative costs.

However, that notice was not provided. Had it been known the district would not help with its media resources, then notice would have been provided independently.

It's interesting that, whenever Greens begin talking about reasonable controls on administrative costs, the Democrats flex their muscles of accusation.

Indeed, the charge of a clandestine meeting regarding the Class of 2023 came immediately on the heels of four Greens not voting towards the three-fifths requirement to enter an executive session to discuss the superintendent's salary.

Maine law clearly states that "an executive session may be held only if public discussion could be reasonably expected to cause damage to the reputation or the individual's right to privacy would be violated."

Given that all members speak frequent praise about our superintendent, the motion was not proper. Democrats disagreed, and Greens were then accused of illegality.

The Democratic strategy to claim repeatedly that Greens "may" be breaking the law implies guilt in the public forum, outside of courts. They continue claiming that Greens' actions, although no different than those of elected Democrats, are illegal violations of public access laws.

Yet they refuse to sue, instead straddling the line of "maybes." A court ruling that Greens who meet are certainly not breaking the law is not as advantageous as the privilege of being able to insistently state that they "may" be.

I believe all nine members of the School Committee have excellent working relationships with each other, bringing unique perspectives, resulting in healthy and wholesome decisions of the "body."

The portrayal of our committee as divided along partisan lines is less a reality than a convenient description to serve the purposes of city Democratic leaders, about whose motives one can only speculate. It is after all, an election year.

Three friends on the School Committee will be meeting again on Thursday at 5 p.m. in Lincoln Park, and anybody is welcome to attend. It is a public park, in a free country.

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