WATERVILLE — The city’s Planning Board chairman is criticizing what he calls the appearance of a “rigged” system after a trio of city councilors attended an event hosted by a group that’s fighting against school budget cuts.

Paul Lussier first made the comments Tuesday when he stood before the City Council and said three councilors haad attended a function recently hosted by Friends of Waterville Schools, a group that is urging adequate funding for schools in the proposed 2017-18 budget.

Lussier’s criticism is the latest in an increasingly tense citywide debate about municipal and school budgets and tax burdens.

Eliza Mathias, of the group Friends of Waterville Schools, said at the council meeting that “everyone was invited” to the informational gathering, which was held June 11 at the Silver Street Tavern. About 50 people, including children, attended the gathering. Rep. Colleen Madigan gave an assessment of where state legislators were in the debate about school funding and answered questions, according to those who attended.

But Lussier suggested that the appearance of the three councilors there could constitute an illegal council meeting and that, at the least, it gave the appearance of the councilors siding with a particular advocacy group. He said officials must avoid the appearance of wrongdoing, and he was “just disheartened that these councilors be so involved in that, and where does it stop?”

“I don’t speak for any one group,” he said. “I think I speak for the silent majority that’s out there.”

Lussier said everyone wants good schools, but “we also want fiscal responsibility and fair play without the appearance of the system being rigged.”

The criticism echoes complaints from members of a group that calls itself the People’s Council who argue that the city’s tax base has shrunk, expenditures have grown and residents can’t withstand a heavier tax burden. Members of that group have been critical of school spending and have called for reductions while urging city officials to keep the city tax rate at $22.80 per $1,000 worth of property value.

Friends of Waterville Schools and Superintendent Eric Haley say city schools are facing a dire financial predicament driven by reductions in state subsidy and say deep cuts to school spending will result in job cuts or a deterioration in the quality of education for students.

City Manager Michael Roy said he was told that councilors Lauren Lessing, D-Ward 3, Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, and Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, attended the Friends of Waterville Schools function on June 11, but acknowledged that he was not there and could not say what happened there or what was discussed.

“I don’t know what they were discussing that day,” he said.

Lessing said in a phone interview Friday that she attended the meeting after her husband, Uri, a teacher at Albert S. Hall School, got an email from a representative of the teacher’s union notifying him and other Waterville school employees of the gathering.

She said she and Dupont and Tate did not sit together and people were spread out and discussing school issues among themselves.

“It was an informal gathering and conversation,” she said. “We were all kind of engaging with constituents, and people were encouraged to write letters to legislators, telling them they support Waterville public schools.”

Earlier, Lessing was contacted by email to comment on Lussier’s report to the council. She returned the email and fired back at Lussier’s criticism by calling it a “silly witch hunt.”

“I regularly speak to the citizens of my ward — my neighbors,” Lessing said. “I have heard from more than one of them that they used to attend city council meetings, but that they can no longer stomach the unceasing belligerence of some of the members of the so-called ‘People’s Council.'”

Roy said the city’s opinion is that three councilors attending an event does not constitute the need for issuing notice of a public meeting.

“In our opinion, it’s (three) councilors,” he said. “It’s just like if the chamber of commerce had an event and it was planned for downtown Waterville. That kind of thing. That doesn’t constitute a meeting of the council. They weren’t going with the intent to discuss city business.”

Students board a school bus parked in front of the Albert Hall School in Waterville on May 23. Some residents are calling for the closure of the school as soon as possible to save money amid a declining student population, but officials say the process would take about three years. Staff photo by David Leaming

State law does not define what constitutes a public meeting, though it does specify that a meeting of three or more members of a public board must be posted with prior notice. What matters most in those cases is what board members discuss, as state law says such a gathering should be open to the public and subject to open records law if “the transactions of any functions affecting any or all citizens of the State” are conducted.

Sigmund Schutz, an attorney specializing in freedom of information with the law firm PretiFlaherty and who represents the Morning Sentinel, said in an email that it’s his opinion a gathering of three or more members of a body, but less than a quorum, may be deemed a public meeting depending on their conversation together. Did they jointly discuss any public business, or were only personal or social matters discussed?

“All in all, three members of a body can attend a function — e.g., a rotary event or chamber of commerce event — without that becoming a ‘meeting,'” Schutz said. “But if there are more indicia of a meeting and actual joint discussion of public business, that may violate” the state’s open meetings law.

Lessing said in her email that she was proud to attend the Friends of Waterville Schools gathering, noting that her husband, a fifth-grade teacher, attended the event with her.

“Although I didn’t give a formal speech, that really had more to do with the fact that I was busy in my garden earlier that day than with any reservations on my part,” Lessing said. “I wholeheartedly support our public schools here in Waterville, because I know through research that excellent public schools are a key factor in economic growth, which Waterville needs.”

Lessing also said she checked with the city’s attorney, Bill Lee, to be sure there was “no conflict of interest in my being involved with the group.” Lee gave her the go-ahead because of the First Amendment, allowing her right to free speech.

“So there is no conflict of interest whatever, nor anything illegal or unethical in my supporting the Friends of the Waterville Public Schools, attending their meetings, or joining their group should I choose to do so,” Lessing said. “For the record, I also support the Friends of Quarry Road (a Waterville public park). In fact, I sit on their board.”

Mathias, a former councilor, said in a voice message Friday that all councilors were invited to the meeting at Silver Street Tavern and it was publicized on a public Facebook page.

“I personally reached out to the mayor and asked him to attend,” Mathias said.

Mathias said Friday in an email that the Friends of Waterville Schools invited all councilors, school board members, the mayor and state senators and representatives to the meeting. She said she feels it is the duty of elected officials to listen to constituents, and she is proud of those who turned out for the meeting to listen to 40 to 50 residents.

“All our elected officials should be concerned about school funding. I wish all of them had showed up to hear about the feelings of the community about schools.”

She said children made signs supporting schools, and passers-by told the children they would support them. Everyone has the right to free speech and the right to gather, according to Mathias.

“Everyone has a conflict of interest if we look hard enough. Perhaps Lussier and his role on the Planning Board could be viewed as a conflict. We need to stop criticizing people for listening to their constituents, or we will turn away good candidates for these difficult elected positions.”

Tate said in an email that she could not speak about Lussier’s concerns because he “chose to discuss innuendo and rumor — he did not name any specific councilors and was discussing an event he admitted he did not attend and knew next to nothing about.”

“These kinds of uninformed public statements are a major problem with contemporary politics in our city. I would invite all who are concerned about conflict of interest to meet with city attorney Bill Lee to learn more about these issues. I have received excellent guidance from him on what constitutes a conflict of interest — personal financial gain — and the importance of exercising our Constitutional rights of free speech and free assembly as work as public officials to connect with our community.”

Tate said councilors’ roles include getting involved in the public life of the city, and she is committed to reaching out to the community to hear people’s concerns. She listed the events she has attended, including a rally against hate that followed distribution of KKK flyers in the city, events organized by Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce and a Central Maine Pride Festival held at Head of Falls. At the schools meeting June 11, she presented Hall School fifth-grade teacher Mary Dunn, who was awarded the 2017 Maine Education Association Excellence in Teaching Award and runs the school’s gardening program, she said.

“My role as a city councilor has offered me many opportunities to meet and connect with the citizens of Waterville, to hear their concerns and to celebrate achievements of this extraordinary city,” Tate said.

Dupont said in an email that she thinks it is imperative that councilors attend informational gatherings when they can at which constituents voice concerns — and more so when ongoing state-level decisions are being made.

“It is our obligation to stay informed and aware of these rapid changes,” she said. “The Friends of Waterville Public Schools was able to bring speakers from the state house to talk with folks on where the legislature was headed and offered more information. The attitudes and behaviors toward funding education on a state level is completely relevant. It would be improper for me to not do my job. It could also be seen as partial to not attend these publicized gatherings. Absence does not equal impartiality.”

Dupont said that as a child therapist she knows both personally and professionally how important quality of schools is to a child’s wellness.

“My constituents are concerned about the ever shrinking funding for our schools. It is my job and my values to stay present with them on these issues.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17