2016-03-11 / Front Page

Selectmen launch community outreach ‘listening sessions’

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Citing concern that town residents with concerns of their own are reluctant to say so at a public meeting, the Board of Selectmen has decided to launch a new public outreach program.

Selectmen voted 7-0 at their Feb. 23 meeting to dispatch two of their number, on a rotating basis, to weekly Saturday morning listening sessions. By limiting the meetings to just two selectmen, the town can avoid state laws that compel them to make a record of the meetings.

“The one consistent comment I hear [from the public] is that they hate the podium, they hate coming in here where there are camera,” said Selectman Richard Morin, who moved for creation of the new program. “They’d like an opportunity to just talk casually off-line about business.”

On Monday, the state’s public access ombudsman, Brenda Kielty, declined to say if the new subcommittee violates the spirit of Maine’s right-to-know laws.

“It’s my role to mediate in disputes and to help bring those to a resolution,” she said. “My role is not to provide you with a quote for your article. I don’t even want you to say, ‘No comment.’ I’m really not comfortable with being quoted at all.”

However, attorney Sigmund Schutz, of the Portland firm Preti Flaherty, said the new committee raises no red flags for him. A former attorney for the Maine Press Association who has written extensively about Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, Schutz still serves on both the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and the New England Freedom of Information Coalition.

Schutz said under Maine law, Kennebunk selectmen have no legal obligation to televise even their regular business meetings. However, the law does say that the town must provide advance public notice and keep minutes of any meeting that includes three or more elected or appointed officials.

“But because it’s only two, they would not be subject to those requirements,” Schutz said. “But even so, in other respects it would seem like this would probably be a public proceeding.

“That’s where I would draw the line,” Schutz said. “I don’t hear anything that tells me they are violating the public access laws, but on the other hand it does seem to me like these meetings are public meetings that would have to comply with other requirements of the law regarding public access.”

Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said Monday the meetings will be publicized. After all, the point of the outreach sessions is to solicit comment from residents too timid to stand and speak at a formal selectmen’s meeting, meaning only no cameras present and no decisions made.

“The Board members will not be deliberating but listening,” Tibbetts wrote in an email. “This time will helpfully allow residents the opportunity to share about the town who may not be comfortable with the regular Tuesday televised board meetings.

However, no cameras does not mean the conversations will be conducted in private.

“The Saturday meetings are open to the public, and press,” Tibbetts said.

Schutz said that allowance is important.

Under the statute, the operative term is a ‘public proceeding,’” he said.

“By voting to create this sort of subcommittee, and by inviting the public to attend, they [selectmen] are essentially treating these meetings as public proceedings, even though there are no camera. That means they could not exclude the public. They could not exclude the media, and they could not go into executive session to talk to someone privately just because that person may not want to speak with others in the room. Now, whether all of that is a good idea or a bad idea, that depends on what the circumstances are. I don’t know that is typical procedure. I don’t know that any other towns do this.”

However, while the purpose of the outreach sessions seems well-intentioned, Schutz said one issue could arise from how selectmen choose to proceed on the issues raised. Maine law states that all public business must be conducted in public, meaning even sharing views expressed among themselves via email could constitute an illegal deliberative session. Selectmen can communicate outside of a public meeting, but generally only on process matters, such as the start time for a meeting.

But Tibbetts said he does not expect email chains debating the merits of topics broached at the outreach sessions.

Although it’s probable no names will be mentioned, “I would expect board members to share with the other board members at the next regularly held public meeting,” Tibbetts said.

According to Tibbetts, the first outreach session has been tentatively set for 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 19, in the selectmen’s meeting room at town hall. It has not yet been announced which two selectmen will staff the first meeting.

“The board members will sign up for when they are available on Saturdays and all board members will have the opportunity to meet with the public,” Tibbetts said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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