A meeting of some of the Portland School Committee's Green Party members to discuss school business at the fountain at Lincoln Park Thursday is drawing criticism from colleagues and constituents.
Critics say the Greens are once again stirring up partisan politics on a committee that traditionally operates outside them.
Green Party members say all they are trying to do is make the School Committee's business more public.
But it appears their attempts at transparency have backfired. Critics also say the Green Party members violated public access laws by improperly calling the Lincoln Park meeting and failing to post it publicly.
The meeting was called Monday by at-large committee member Ben Meiklejohn, a Green who said he wanted to talk about reducing administrative costs in a casual setting.
He sent e-mails to his fellow committee members asking them to join him. He also e-mailed School Committee Chairman Ellen Alcorn and Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor, asking them to notify the public of the meeting by contacting the media.
"We decided to be above-board and to cross all the t's and dot all the i's," Meiklejohn said.
The meeting took place as planned, at the fountain at Lincoln Park next to the Cumberland County Superior Court building. Those present included Meiklejohn and fellow Green committee members Stephen Spring and Jason Toothaker and two reporters contacted by Spring. No other media had been contacted. The meeting ran for about 10 to 15 minutes.
"We just talked about possibilities. It was totally open," said Meiklejohn.
Both he and Spring said the meeting was a deliberate move to make the School Committee's dealings more public. Earlier this year all four Green party members, including Susan Hopkins, pushed to keep the discussion of O'Connor's salary public rather than hold the discussion in secret, a move opposed by the five non-Green members.
Alcorn said she did not follow through with Meiklejohn's request to contact the media because it fell outside board protocol. All meetings are supposed to be called by the chairman, she said, not by individual committee members.
Instead, she alerted city Democratic Party Chairman Sive Neilan about the Lincoln Park meeting. Neilan then sent off several e-mails to city officials in protest.
Defending her move, Alcorn said she alerted the Democrats out of frustration over simmering partisan politics on her board and a belief that someone who would care should know about the Lincoln Park meeting.
"I don't go to Democratic City Committee meetings. I don't have huge ambitions to go to the City Council, but I really care about the School Committee and am at the point now I just do not know how else to handle it," Alcorn said.
She said two meetings with a facilitator to help the committee cooperate and a meeting with the school attorney have failed to iron out differences.
Alcorn said while it is not clear whether the meeting in the park was illegal, it most likely violated the School Committee's own policies, which require all meetings to be called through the chairman.
"Ben Meiklejohn never called me to ask me to call this meeting. It is a violation of our policy," she said.
Neilan called the meeting "very out of order" and criticized the Green School Committee members for not adequately publicizing the meeting in a park few people know by name.
"In Maine there has been a really long struggle to open up the public debate on civic matters to the public. The Green people do not seem to be aware of that long struggle," she said.
Spring said the Lincoln Park meeting was a demand for more openness.
"I see it as a statement that we need to do our business more in the public," he said.
He said the park meeting was such a success, the three decided to gather there at 4 p.m. every other Thursday.
The school district's attorney, Harry Pringle, was unavailable for comment.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, August 05, 2006
School Meeting in Park Criticized by Beth Quimby in the Portland Press Herald: August 5, 2006
Posted by Kevin Donoghue at 3:05 PM