WATERVILLE — A resident is requesting an investigation into what he alleges was an illegal meeting late Tuesday between four city councilors and the mayor at a downtown restaurant.

Rien Finch said he was at Portland Pie Co. on Main Street downtown around 8 p.m., after Tuesday’s City Council meeting, and confronted Council Chairman Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, and councilors Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, Phil Bofia, R-Ward 2, and Jay Coelho, D-Ward 5, at a large table with Mayor Nick Isgro and others. Finch told them the Maine Freedom of Access Act requires that when a majority of the council meets, the press has to be notified beforehand in time for the public to be notified.

“That’s the reason we have the open access law, to make sure the City Council isn’t discussing city business without the public present because otherwise, all we have to go on is their word,” Finch said later Tuesday.

Finch sent an email late Tuesday to City Clerk Patti Dubois and City Manager Michael Roy, and copied City Solicitor William A. Lee III on that email. In it, Finch asks that an investigation be conducted, as he believes the gathering constituted a violation of public meeting laws.

Contacted Wednesday, Lee said in a phone interview that he plans to notify the council of Finch’s request for an investigation and explain what councilors’ responsibilities are in such an instance.

“There certainly are questions raised regarding whether this gathering of the majority of the council is in violation of the Freedom of Access law,” Lee said.

He said he does not know what was discussed at the gathering and noted that the simple fact that the four councilors met does not make it a public meeting, but if there was any discussion about public business, then it would be public.

Lee holds orientation meetings with new councilors and advises them not to have meetings of more than three councilors, as a member of the public who sees them together may perceive they are transacting city business.

“My recommendation has always been that there not be more than three councilors together where public business may be discussed,” Lee said.

Councilors also are required by law to take a course about the Freedom of Access Law, which may be taken online and is offered by the Maine Municipal Association, according to Lee.

“I thought they all had taken such a course because they were all advised to take such a course,” he said.

He said councilors are the only officials who may make a decision about whether to conduct an investigation in this case, and a discussion would be held about which councilors may vote on whether to conduct an investigation. The councilors who do vote also would determine the scope of the investigation and who would conduct it, according to Lee.

THE CONFRONTATION

Finch said he went to Portland Pie at about 7:50 p.m. Tuesday and sat with councilors Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, and Meg Smith, D-Ward 3. Afterward, Morris and Bofia entered and went to a table in the back of the restaurant and Mayhew and Isgro joined them, and then, Coelho. Others joined them, including Julian Payne, a member of the Waterville Board of Education, Mark Andre, Shaun Caron and Scott McAdoo.

Finch said he went over to that table and advised the group that four councilors could not meet at one time and took a photo of the table. The table then went over to Finch, Tate and Smith’s table in another part of the restaurant and gathered around them and Caron took a photo of the group. Finch said he felt that was done in retaliation, to make it appear Tate and Smith also were breaking the law, as six councilors were together in one place. Tate, Finch said, was not happy about the move.

When the men went back to their large table, Finch took a video of them, as he continued to insist it was an illegal meeting. A man who said he was the restaurant owner asked Finch to leave, which he did.

Isgro, Morris, Bofia, Smith and Tate did not immediately return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

But Coelho said in a phone interview that Finch was “trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill,” and that the councilors were doing nothing wrong.

Coelho said he was the last councilor to show up in the restaurant and sat down only briefly with Isgro and the other councilors, as he had planned to meet someone else there, and ordered water.

“They were ordering drinks and watching the basketball game and talking about pizza,” Coelho said.

He said Finch took a picture of the table. Coelho said he understands the Freedom of Access Law, but feels that Finch went too far.

“We literally did absolutely nothing wrong, so if anybody wants to investigate, have at it,” Coelho said. “I have nothing to hide.”

He said that after Finch took a picture, some of the men at the table got up and went over to the table where Tate and Smith were sitting, gathered around them and Caron took a photo of the group. A few others — such as McAdoo, Payne and Andre — stayed behind.

“We were going to make a light-hearted attempt to show that there was nothing nefarious going on,” Coelho said. “I didn’t even know they were going to take a picture.”

‘PURE ACCIDENT’

Mayhew also said no city business was discussed during the gathering. Mayhew said Isgro invited him to go to Portland Pie after the council meeting, they got a table and the three councilors, Morris, Bofia and then Coelho, and others, showed up and sat with them. At some point, they realized there were four councilors and they discussed that they probably should break up the group. Mayhew’s version of events differs from Finch’s in that Finch said he thought Morris and Bofia were the first to arrive and get a table and Isgro, Mayhew and the others followed.

Finch came over, told them to smile for the camera and then took a photo, according to Mayhew. Mayhew said he and the others thought he was having fun with them, so they went over to the table with Tate and Smith and took a photo and then all the men except Mayhew went back to their table.

Mayhew said Tate was angry that they had gathered and taken the photo, and he apologized to her and promised to go back to the larger table and break up the group so there would not be four councilors. Before that happened, Finch returned and continued to say they were meeting illegally, according to Mayhew. He said there was never a plan for four councilors to meet at one table.

“It was a series of events that I and the mayor weren’t anticipating, for that many people and that amount of councilors coming into the establishment,” Mayhew said.

He said the restaurant owner intervened and asked Finch to leave.

Payne said that before Finch took a photo of the four councilors and the table, they were conversing and ordering drinks and food. No city business was discussed, he said.

“I looked around,” Payne said. “It was pure accident. We didn’t even realize there were four councilors there until Rien came with a camera.”

Payne said he recommended two councilors move to another table and at that point, Morris and Coelho did so. Payne said he was not part of the group that went to Tate and Smith’s table, after which Caron took a photo.

 

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

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