Faced with an unrelenting addiction crisis, Gov. Janet Mills last year issued an executive order aimed at making sure drug users have access to clean needles and overdose-reversal drugs.

Nine months later, the city of Portland’s needle-exchange program is the only one in the state not taking advantage, baffling public health experts and the recovery community.

The City Council owed them answers. Instead, without good reason, they met behind closed doors. In doing so, the council violated the state’s open-meeting laws. They robbed residents of their right to understand a key matter of city policy, and to hold elected officials accountable.

State law requires that elected bodies do most of their work in public, with few exceptions. Before the council met privately for two hours with its top attorney, the city cited only the general state statute governing private meetings, not any specific exception, as is required by law.

A city spokesperson only said that the meeting did not involve a lawsuit or a personnel issue, two of the most commonly used exceptions. The city’s attorney assured the council that the executive session was appropriate, but didn’t explain why. One councilor, Nick Mavodones, said they could be trusted to keep public business from being conducted in private.

Mavodones’ comment misses both some important recent history — the Portland City Council has held at least three inappropriate meetings since 2017 — and the point of Maine’s Freedom of Access law, which is to guarantee the public’s right to know what its government is doing.

You don’t get open government by taking the word of a government attorney or by trusting elected officials to do the right thing. You get it by requiring those officials to do every bit of business possible in full view, so that the press and the public at large can evaluate both the decisions made by an elected body and the process by which they made it.

There are times, of course, when holding a private meeting is appropriate, such as when a municipality has been sued and a public meeting would violate attorney-client privilege. There are times, too, when a public record may be held back or redacted, such as when it includes a person’s private health information or personnel records.

But those are called “exceptions” for a reason — in most cases public business must be done in public, and when it isn’t, it’s up to the elected body to say exactly why.

The Freedom of Access Act exists in order to hold elected officials to that high standard, not as a way to get out of an uncomfortable discussion or avoid accountability for an unpopular decision.

Just this week, the Piscataquis County commissioners halted a Zoom call mid-meeting when residents tried to voice their opposition to a fact-challenged resolution they passed criticizing COVID-19 prevention measures, cutting off dozens of residents who had a right to be heard.

Throughout the state, public officials too often play fast and loose with open meeting laws.

It doesn’t help when the city council in the state’s largest city says they are committed to good and open government, but treat public access laws merely as a suggestion.

 


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