NEW VINEYARD — The chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen says the board will keep minutes of all meetings in the future after admitting to having violated state open records law for at least eight months.

Even so, it’s not clear whether there will be any repercussions for the town, or would be even if it continued to violate the law. State officials interviewed Tuesday shrugged at the matter.

“We will be sure that we won’t make the same mistake again,” Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Fay Adams said. “You can believe we won’t be doing it again. We’re being very careful. We don’t want anyone to think we’re doing anything illegal, immoral or anything to make the news.”

On Monday night, Adams responded to a Freedom of Access Act request by the Morning Sentinel seeking a year’s worth of meeting minutes by saying no Board of Selectmen meeting minutes had been taken for the last eight months.

The newspaper originally sought the information as part of its reporting on the resignation of Arlene Davis, a longtime administrative assistant in the New Vineyard Town Office.

Davis told the Morning Sentinel last month she felt as if she had been forced out of office by the Board of Selectmen after they refused to sign an employment contract with her and abruptly cut her hours while asking her to take on additional duties. Selectmen may have called an illegal meeting when they met with Davis to inform her of the changes, and questions about that also revealed the town was not keeping consistent meeting minutes, which is in violation of the state’s Freedom of Access law.

“The whole idea of taking minutes of a public meeting is to be able to formally record what took place among the body that was meeting to discuss public business,” said Dan Beverly, interim executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “Most, if not all, governments require that when a public body meets, there is some recording of what goes on in that meeting, especially if there are decisions that are made or votes that are taken, so they can become a public record for people to read or go back through and see what transpired.”

Maine law requires at minimum that public government bodies record the time, date and place of the meeting, members of the board who are present and all motions and votes taken. Discussions of personnel issues that take place in executive sessions also are required to be documented.

The law also requires elected officials to complete public access law training within 120 days of taking office, and it requires municipalities to designate a public access officer responsible for ensuring that public access requests are acknowledged.

The state’s public access ombudsman, who is charged with overseeing compliance with public access laws, wouldn’t comment Tuesday on what, if anything, should be done in New Vineyard’s case. Brenda Kielty, the ombudsman, said she would respond with an independent review only if a complaint was filed with her office.

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, wouldn’t comment on the New Vineyard case. Kristen Muszynski, spokeswoman for the Department of the Secretary of State, which oversees elections and civic education, also wouldn’t comment and referred questions to Kielty.

Adams said the town was aware of the law requiring minutes but that board members “slipped up this year and missed that change in the Legislature that made the minutes mandatory rather than suggested.” The Legislature amended the Freedom of Access Act law in 2011 to require a record of all public proceedings.

She said taking minutes is important to the board, although at Monday’s meeting she also said the board didn’t have the time and resources to put into taking minutes, especially at meetings at which she said little happens.

Even so, “decisions have to be made regardless of the size of a town,” Beverly said. Municipal budgets, state requirements, grants, personnel costs and contracts are all things that need to be recorded by municipal officials, he said.

“Anything they’re doing on behalf of the citizens, especially coming to a regularly scheduled public meeting, those things all need to be recorded, and they need to be posted somewhere where if a citizen were to go in and ask for a copy of it, they should be able to get it in a reasonable amount of time,” Beverly said.

Experts say it’s unclear how well enforced Maine’s public access laws are.

“Realistically, you’d have to know everything that happens everywhere to guess at something like that,” said Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. “Obviously, if they say they don’t have minutes of selectmen’s meetings and minutes were never kept, then they’re in violation of the law.”

According to the state statute, a state or local government agency is subject to a fine of up to $500 for each violation of public records law. Towns that don’t comply with public access laws are also more liable to have lawsuits brought against them, according to Sigmund Schutz, a Portland attorney for the Morning Sentinel who specializes in public access law.

But most of the time it’s up to individual people to bring those violations to the attention of the state or the court system.

“It’s very unusual for any agency of the state to pursue violations of the public meetings statute,” Schutz said. “My perception is it’s a low enforcement priority for the state, for district attorneys’ offices.”

He said people also have the right to pursue claims against the town in court that could compel them to create records documenting past meetings and to keep meetings in the future.

Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, who represents New Vineyard and the surrounding area, said the laws are in place requiring a record of municipal meetings and it is up to municipalities to comply with them.

“We have state statutes already in place,” he said. “I believe selectmen are supposed to be keeping minutes. I think it’s something to do with the voters of the town of New Vineyard and what they want and what they want their selectmen to do. There is a state law, which I think selectmen would want to follow.”

Adams, the board chairwoman, conceded that “we know we did wrong.

“I take the blame, but I don’t think anybody suffered from it,” she said. “I don’t believe anybody was punished or had any adversities because of it. If they did, I apologize.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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