Transparency is the law for municipalities

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OXFORD — A meeting set for Wednesday, June 21, to review and discuss applications for the Oxford town manager’s position, was rescheduled that morning, when officials discovered the meeting had not been posted as required by Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA).

“That’s my responsibility,” said Selectmen Chairman Scott Owens on June 21, of the lack of public notification for that night’s meeting.

When asked why it was not posted Owens said, “Because I forgot to tell Becky.”

Becky Lippincott is interim town manager and the only known applicant out of 13 for the permanent job. Town Clerk Beth Olsen, who would normally post public meetings, was not in the office last week.

The meeting is now set for Tuesday, June 27, at 6:30 p.m. in the Oxford Town Office and is advertised as a “special selectmen’s executive session.” Maine’s Freedom of Access Act requires the board to open the session as a regular meeting before it can go into executive session. The regular portion of the meeting is open to the public.

At that time, a majority of the board’s quorum must vote to enter into executive session. The motion to go into executive session must indicate the precise nature of the business of the executive session and include a citation of one or more sources of the eight criteria that permit an executive session, according to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. Matters other than those identified in the motion to go into executive session may not be considered in that particular executive session.

In this case the board is advertising that it is calling the executive session under MRSA, Section 1 chapter 405 (6) (a), which permits them “Discussion or consideration of the employment, appointment, assignment, duties, promotion, demotion, compensation, evaluation, disciplining, resignation or dismissal of an individual or group of public officials, appointees or employees of the body or agency or the investigation or hearing of charges or complaints against a person or persons subject to the following conditions: (1) An executive session may be held only if public discussion could be reasonably expected to cause damage to the individual’s reputation or the individual’s right to privacy would be violated.”

While deliberations and discussions about the candidates may be done in executive session under this criterion, ultimately, the board must make the actual appointment of a town manager in open (public) session.

The town could be liable for a civil violation and $500 fine if it violates the law.

Workshop or not

The original June 21 meeting was set as a “workshop,” according to Owens when asked what type of meeting it would be.

“It’s a workshop that no one else is going to come to,” he said.

Newly-elected Selectman Ed Knightly also said he was told it would be a workshop.

The Maine Municipal Association states that it is a common misconception among boards that they can meet for discussion purpose (in this case reviewing and discussing the applications for town manager) and do so without the public present. Workshops are public proceedings under Maine’s FOAA and the meeting must be publicly noticed and open to the public.

If the majority of the members of the Board of Selectmen meet by chance – whether it is at town office or the local dump – and discuss board matters, that is also a violation of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

Such a situation was avoided recently when, on June 6, there was concern that three or more members of the board would be present at a Meet the Candidates event at the Oxford Recreation Center. The board decided to take out a legal notice in the Advertiser Democrat to inform residents that there “might” be a selectmen’s assembly at the event.

Training required

Town officials are also required to complete a course of training on the requirements of FOAA relating to public records and proceedings. The official must complete the training before the 120th day after the date he or she takes the oath of office.

In the case of the Oxford Board of Selectmen, newly elected Selectman Knightly must now complete the training, which at a minimum must include instruction in the general legal requirements of the chapter regarding public records and public proceedings, procedures and requirements regarding complying with a request for a public record under this chapter, and penalties and other consequences for failure to comply with the chapter.

Once completed the official must make a written or an electronic record attesting to the fact that the training has been completed. The record must identify the training completed and the date of completion. The elected official must keep the record or file it, in this case with the town of Oxford. The law applies to municipal officers, clerks, treasurers, assessors and budget committee members of municipal governments and others.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net