The Waterville City Council holds a meeting Tuesday at Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

WATERVILLE — A City Council subcommittee formed in response to the coronavirus outbreak has been illegally meeting in secret by not allowing public access to its deliberations and is making unlawful decisions, such as temporarily suspending the city’s plastic bag ban.

That was the opinion Thursday from City Solicitor William A. Lee III, who sent an email to city officials raising concerns about the actions of the new panel, whose members are co-spokesmen Mayor Nick Isgro and City Council Chairman Erik Thomas, City Manager Michael Roy, and councilors Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, and Rick Foss, R-Ward 5.

Lee’s concerns highlight thorny issues emerging in the wake of the public-health crisis enveloping the globe, as public officials cite the need to act quickly to safeguard communities even as the frantic pace of the coronavirus spread threatens business as usual and daily life.

In his memo, Lee points to the City Council passing an emergency ordinance Tuesday that created the group, allowing the committee “to call a council meeting on 24 hours’  notice … to enact any items necessary to address the emergency.”

“At the committee meeting on Wednesday, the 18th,  the committee voted to suspend the plastic bag ban ordinance for 90 days and announced publicly that the suspension was in effect. The committee has no authority to do that,” Lee wrote. “The modification of a city ordinance can only be accomplished by a vote of the city council, not by a committee meeting behind closed doors.”

Isgro posted a Facebook Live video Thursday morning announcing the committee’s actions.

Lee said if the subcommittee wants a suspension of the plastic bag ban ordinance, “it must follow the terms of the emergency ordinance and call a special council meeting for that purpose. If the council wishes to impose a suspension, it can do so promptly.”

Meanwhile, the subcommittee met in secret before opening its doors Thursday afternoon. Officials originally called it a task force, when the group on Monday unilaterally announced that Waterville restaurants and bars needed to shut down. The group also announced the suspension of the city’s plastic bag ban for 90 days and was to spend up to $150,000 from city reserves and make other decisions necessary to protect the public health and welfare.

“We are in unchartered waters and I would very much appreciate guidance from the city attorney regarding the limits of authority for this council subcommittee,” Roy, the city manager, said earlier Thursday. “It is important for this subcommittee to be able to act quickly, given what we believe is coming in terms of emergency decisions.

“I want to make sure as we proceed that we are doing so in a way that is transparent and in keeping with Freedom of Information laws.”

Later Thursday, after officials received Lee’s memo, Roy called the Morning Sentinel to notify a reporter the subcommittee was going to meet at 3 p.m. in the basement of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce on Elm Street. Thomas had previously said the public could not attend the subcommittee’s meetings and that they probably would not be live-streamed for the public to  see “just because we need to be able to speak openly and freely.”

Sigmund Schutz, the lawyer for MaineToday Media, which includes the Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal, Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, sent an email Thursday to Brenda Kielty, Maine Public Access ombudsman, saying that in this public health crisis, urgent guidance is needed for state and local government on compliance with the Freedom of Access Act. Schutz said he is already fielding inquiries about emergency committees meeting perhaps without public notice or access.

“Anything that stifles the flow of information, especially to the news media, about what government is up to in this crisis is a big problem,” Schutz said.

At the subcommittee meeting Thursday, after city officials had seen Lee’s memo, Isgro and other members made it clear they would comply with Lee’s directive on allowing public access to meetings. Isgro told a reporter the subcommittee will meet every day at 3 p.m., and officials were working on a way to live-stream those meetings.

Prior to Thursday’s subcommittee meeting, Lee issued a second email to the city saying subcommittee meetings should be open to the public as they are “public proceedings requiring advance public notice and the opportunity for the public to attend.”

Also, Isgro and Roy announced a special city council meeting will be held at 3 p.m. Friday to consider voting to suspend the plastic bag ban — an action the subcommittee took Wednesday without authority to do so. Only the council can make such a decision. Councilors also will discuss whether the city should consider suspending its purple trash bag program during the coronavirus outbreak.

The council meeting will be live-streamed by cable television from a link listed on the city’s webpage — waterville-me.gov.

Isgro said he is concerned reusable bags customers bring into stores can carry the virus and that has been an ongoing national discussion. He urged people not to bring reusable bags into stores, and if they must, to ensure they are sanitized beforehand.

 

PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO KNOW

Lee wrote in one memo he has been asked whether the subcommittee is a public body requiring advance notice of its meetings, allowing the public to attend and have live streaming permitted.

“While there can be a meeting of a 2- or 3-member city council committee without it automatically becoming a public meeting, depending on the function of that committee, it could become a body requiring public meetings.  I am still determining the functions of this committee and will address that issue separately.”

Later Thursday, Lee sent another email to city officials saying he was contacted Thursday by the Morning Sentinel and legal counsel for the Sentinel with a request to be notified in advance of the subommittee’s meetings and to be able to attend these meetings.

The Waterville City Council takes a vote Tuesday during its meeting at Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Lee said small committees of two or three councilors — and Waterville has a seven-member council — typically are created to gather information to report back to the council for public discussion and decision. These small groups have no decision-making authority and are not seen as fitting within the definition of public proceedings, he said.

“There is a critical difference between these information gathering committees and the committee formed to address corona virus issues,” Lee said. “The ordinance creating the COVID-19 Committee gives it the authority to spend up to $150,000 of taxpayer funds without further council approval.

“This 4 member committee’s ability to spend this taxpayer money is certainly the transaction of a function affecting all the residents and taxpayers of Waterville. For this reason, the committee’s meetings are public proceedings requiring advance public notice and the opportunity for the public to attend.”

Schutz, the newspapers’ lawyer, said if governmental bodies shift public meetings to online or telephonic formats, they should ensure that the public is provided as much advance notice of such meetings as possible. And even though Gov. Janet Mills has prohibited meetings of more than 10 people, public attendance and participation can happen in online or telephonic means.

Schutz said it is important to emphasize “the importance of public access to public information now …  to head off problems and avoid bad practices that could really undermine public confidence in government and suppress information that the public is entitled to know about daily changing government regulations, health recommendations and advisories, and the like.”

 

THE SUBCOMMITTEE MEETS

Several people besides the five subcommittee members attended Thursday’s two-hour meeting at the Chamber of Commerce basement to hear updates from city officials on coronavirus efforts and discuss ongoing activities.

Fire Chief Shawn Esler and Deputy police Chief Bill Bonney joined remotely via Skype and Thomas via telephone. In attendance were Roy; Isgro; Francke; Foss; Schools Superintendent Eric Haley; Garvan Donegan, director of planning and economic development for the Central Maine Growth Council; and Kimberly N. Lindlof, executive director of the Growth Council and president of the chamber.

Esler said the federal government indicated it would reimburse the city for emergency operations as long as everything is documented. The city’s emergency operations center, which is addressing the coronavirus situation, is functioning under the Incident Command System, an extremely organized structure, according to Roy.

Roy said that on Wednesday, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter contacted the city saying it was over capacity during the coronavirus situation with 50 people there, making social distancing practices impossible. Ten people, two of whom are pregnant and eight older than 65, needed to be moved elsewhere.

“We basically decided this morning we’ll do whatever we need to do to move 10 people into a hotel, even if they’re not GA (general assistance) eligible,” Roy said. “I think we’re on target to get 10 people out today.”

Haley said buses were sent on routes to deliver food to children and on Thursday, 1, 238 meals, both breakfast and lunch, were delivered.

Donegan and Lindlof spoke of ways the Growth Council and chamber are addressing concerns of businesses during the crisis.

Donegan said the Small Business Administration has economic and injury disaster loans and the Growth Council is happy to work with small businesses to apply for them. Businesses are expected to be facing three basic needs, including cash flow, working capital and employment and unemployment issues, he said.

Lindlof said the chamber was able to connect workers who lost their cleaning jobs with a company that needed those workers.

Bonney cited ongoing hospital efforts to organize test sites and said all city restaurants and bars have been complying with the governor’s order prohibiting dining in-house.

Police Department staff members have been addressing calls from people related to the coronavirus.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.