The South Thomaston Planning Board did a poor job Nov. 17 of making the public feel welcome in its process as it continues to consider a proposed gravel pit operation.

When more than 30 residents packed the small meeting room at Town Hall hoping to learn more about the project, Planning Board Chairwoman Eileen Skarka informed them that the meeting was only for the board members to speak and that the one and only public hearing for the project had already taken place.

There was a strong sense of, "What are you doing here? We have already heard from the public."

The board, to its credit, did say the residents were allowed to stay and listen, though the chairwoman made sure to repeat several times that it was not a public hearing.

We hope both the board and members of the public will acquaint themselves with Maine's Freedom of Access Act.

Citizens have a right to attend planning board meetings, selectmen's meetings, and meetings of any government committee or board and see what actions their government is taking. They should not be discouraged from attending meetings when the board members describe a meeting as a "workshop" or specify that it is not a public hearing. Any meeting of a board with a quorum of its members, whether it is at the town hall or at a local restaurant is, by law, a public meeting.

Even more alarming, the Planning Board attempted to go into a closed-door executive session at the end of the meeting to talk about when and where the site walk of the proposed gravel pit is to take place, and they attempted to do so without specifying why they were going into executive session. This is against the law.

If a board is to go into a closed meeting, it has to state the reason and that reason has to be one of the few exceptions to the right-to-know law. These can include consulting with an attorney or personnel matters.

It was clear talking to the Planning Board members they were not sure of these rules.

South Thomaston leaders should take a look at their ordinances and the practices of their officials to make sure the citizens are properly informed of important meetings and welcomed to attend and participate. Many boards offer a public comment portion of the meeting, even when it is not a formal public hearing and that creates a spirit of unity in the community, rather than division. When people are not listened to or are shut out of the meeting, they become suspicious of their local leaders, who are almost always (in this case as well) good people volunteering time to help their neighbors.

For that reason, an open meeting protects the members of the board as much as it protects the rights of the citizens.

Be safe, hold your families close

Our front-page story on longtime Medomak Valley High School substitute teacher Rody Conway is a sobering reminder that for every tragic crash we write about, there is a rest of the story, a person who is more than a name and age.

Conway had been a substitute teacher at the school for 17 years and it's clear from the reaction in the community that he was much more than your average substitute.

Conway's story included 25 years of teaching U.S. history, surviving two tours of duty in Vietnam, and traveling around the world. He was a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Ranger battalion and a West Point graduate.

He will be missed in this community, and perhaps we can all best honor him this Thanksgiving by doing everything we can to be safe on the roads and by holding our loved ones close.

Happy Thanksgiving

Last but not least, the staff and management of The Courier-Gazette wish every reader a happy holiday.

We are thankful for the readers and advertisers who make it possible to bring all the latest, most important news to the Midcoast each day online and every week in print.