WATERVILLE — A majority of city councilors on Friday signaled willingness to allow a new coronavirus-response subcommittee comprising elected officials to meet in secret, barring public attendance and oversight even after the city attorney raised alarms this past week that the panel had been acting illegally.

Waterville city officials and councilors meet Friday at the Fairfield Community Center, as other councilors are teleconferenced in remotely on a TV screen.

The City Council voted 5-1 to amend the number of councilors on the committee and make it an advisory-only panel, as a way of circumventing Maine’s open meetings law and allowing its members to continue to meet privately and without any public notice. A second council vote must be held to finalize the move.

Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, was the lone dissenter in the 5-1 vote, saying that prohibiting the public and the press from meetings is what had gotten the previous subcommittee into hot water. Francke was also a member of the subcommittee and argued for keeping meetings open to the press and public.

But under the council’s preliminary vote on Friday, the subcommittee would drop one council member — Francke — and continue on with Mayor Nick Isgro, Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, and Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5.

Francke on Friday started to talk about “earlier this week when we operated in secret,” to which Isgro responded: “We did not operate in secret.”

“I can’t support shrinking the size of the committee any further,” said Francke, an attorney.

Thomas also objected to Francke’s comment that the panel had held secret meetings, saying sometimes people need to speak “freely and honestly” without having to “worry about everything coming out of their mouths being quoted in the newspaper.”

Claude Francke Rich Abrahamson

Isgro said having the smaller panel allows for no public notice. “We have the public support on this,” he said, without elaborating.

Reducing to the number of councilors on the panel from three to two, and removing the decision-making authority, was a way for the panel to continue to meet in private without violating the Freedom of Access Act, a law intended to protect the public’s right to know what their elected officials are doing and require the public be given advance notice of meetings so they may attend or view online. Friday’s council vote allows the group to serve in an advisory-only capacity to the council and authorizes the city manager to spend up to $150,000 for emergency related items such as personnel, protective gear and food.

The council held an emergency meeting Friday at 3 p.m. at the Fairfield Community Center, mandating that the public not attend because the governor has limited the number of people who may meet in groups to 10 or fewer.

After the meeting, City Clerk Patti Dubois emailed the Morning Sentinel to say that City Solicitor William A. Lee III advised that a second vote is needed to finalize the council’s decision on the coronavirus subcommittee because Friday’s vote was not adopted unanimously.

“The only way to dispense with a second reading of an emergency ordinance is for the vote to be unanimous, which it was not,” her email states.

The goal of holding the Friday council meeting in Fairfield was to live-stream for the public from CATV’s location where all its equipment is located. But technical difficulties made much of the meeting not viewable and inaudible to people who tuned in.

Nick Isgro

During the discussion, Isgro blasted the Morning Sentinel for revealing the subcommittee had been meeting illegally in private to make decisions only the full council has authority to make, such as closing down bars and restaurants and suspending a plastic bag ban. That panel did so earlier in the week, drawing admonishment from City Solicitor William A. Lee III.

Lee, who could not be immediately reached for comment Friday evening, ruled earlier this week that the prior subcommittee was meeting illegally in private and making decisions that only the council has authority to make.

The Waterville City Council holds a meeting Tuesday at Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville. Friday’s meeting was held at the CATV center in Fairfield so that it could be live-streamed to the public, but a problem with the technology made the meeting partially unviewable. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

Francke said if the subcommittee had allowed the press at a meeting Wednesday night when fire Chief Shawn Esler and Deputy police Chief Bill Bonney described their emergency operations in detail, the public would have had the opportunity to know what is being done for the city during the coronavirus situation.

“That never made it to the press, so we missed a great opportunity,” Francke said.

Thomas and Isgro throughout the discussion continued to object to allowing public access at the meetings.

“Since the press has a taste for salacious headlines, it’s really not a priority for me,” Isgro said.

Thomas said no other towns are facing such media scrutiny. Francke said he wanted to make one last comment before the council took a vote.

“If you want to continue to get bad press, this is exactly how to do it,” Francke said.

Councilor Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, was absent from the meeting. Thomas and councilors Meg Smith, D-Ward 3, Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, and Foss voted to approve the ordinance amendment.

Prior to that vote, the council voted to declare a public emergency to allow for a coordinated response to the public health threat.

The council also approved a recommendation by Isgro to suspend the city’s plastic bag ban until Jan. 1. The ban prohibits stores of 10,000-square-feet and larger from dispensing single-use plastic bags with purchases. Another vote is required to finalize that decision.

Isgro has argued that reusable bags pose a health risk amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Before that vote, Francke proposed an amendment that would suspend the bag ban only until the coronavirus emergency is over. Isgro argued against that motion, which failed.

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