Every activity in Maine has been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. It has shut down the bars on Saturday night as well as the churches on Sunday morning, so it’s no surprise that strict observance of social distancing is going to force changes in local government.

But if any municipal manager or select board member is wondering how to proceed, they should take a good look at the city of Waterville and do the opposite. Last week, that municipality offered a textbook example of how not to govern in a crisis.

First, the city created a task force that could meet in secret without public notice and make binding policy decisions. Then on Tuesday, task force announced that it had ordered all of the city’s restaurants and bars to close and suspended the city’s ban on single-use plastic bags.

But by Thursday, Waterville City Solicitor William A. Lee III delivered the news that the task force had violated the state’s Freedom of Access Act, and that the City Council would have to do the task force’s work over, this time in public, if it wanted to make those changes.

Why is this important? Because even in a pandemic, our system of government doesn’t work in secret. Secret meetings with secret deliberations, no matter how well-intended, make accountability impossible and lead to bad decisions. The people, and their representatives in the news media, keep the elected officials honest and need to be able to observe what’s going on.

And in a crisis, like the one posed by COVID-19, it is even more vital that the public get good information from the most reliable sources. A secret committee issuing secret decrees for who-knows-what reason won’t have the public trust that the city would need when it needs to get everyone on board with public health guidance.

The Legislature passed emergency legislation last week that will let cities and towns continue to do the public’s business in a safe way. Entities that are subject to the open meeting law are allowed to hold meetings by telephone or over a video link, as long as the public is notified and has an opportunity to participate. When done right, electronic meetings can meet safety concerns while providing proper oversight.

But no matter how they choose to proceed, it’s important that municipal officials don’t treat this crisis as permission to ignore the public’s right to know. Even in a pandemic – especially in a pandemic – municipal officials should take their responsibility seriously and follow the law.

This would be a good time for Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey to remind local officials of their requirements, so that more municipalities don’t make the mistakes we saw in Waterville.

This editorial was corrected on March 24. Because of an editorial writer’s error, an earlier version incorrectly identified Mayor Nick Isgro as the person who created the city’s COVID-19 task force.

 

 


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