We haven't changed our minds on transparency

Oct 12, 2017

When the three candidates running for City Council met in a debate Oct. 4, incumbent Valli Geiger argued we were wrong to say in June that city councilors should not be meeting outside of public meetings to do the taxpayers' business.

This is an important issue concerning transparency in city government, and we disagree with her position.

Back around the beginning of June, we ran a story detailing division that had grown among city councilors as revealed in their emails to each other, which we were able to obtain as public documents. In the editorial that followed this story, we made the following argument:

"In her emails, Geiger tells (Councilor Adam) Ackor how she would have dinner with a fellow councilor every few weeks and meet with the former mayor on Sunday afternoons and work on ordinances over drinks with another councilor. She also chastised Ackor for reneging on his vote on the food sovereignty ordinance when she said, 'It was my understanding from Jesse that we had your vote.'"

"...City councilors should not be having secret, non-public meetings where they work out how they are going to vote and then simply rubber stamp these agreements in front of the cameras at council meetings. This denies the public the right to hear the debate on the issues and the reasons for their votes. This kind of revelation also serves to erode the trust."

Geiger took issue with this in a lengthy online comment stating, in part, "Councilors can meet with each other, it is legal. We cannot meet as a group privately to discuss policy or anything else. But, we must meet with each other if we are to create working relationships that move the city forward."

Maine's Freedom of Access law states in part, "...Public proceedings exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the Legislature that their actions be taken openly and that the records of their actions be open to public inspection and their deliberations be conducted openly. It is further the intent of the Legislature that clandestine meetings, conferences or meetings held on private property without proper notice and ample opportunity for attendance by the public not be used to defeat the purposes of this subchapter."

Geiger would likely point out that it also says, "This subchapter does not prohibit communications outside of public proceedings between members of a public body unless those communications are used to defeat the purposes of this subchapter."

Therein lies the room for interpretation. We would argue that this would apply to two city councilors having a cup of coffee and asking after each others' kids. Sorting out via email who is agreeing to vote how on a public policy, as her emails to Ackor clearly intended, seems to us to "defeat the purposes" of the law.

Remember too, that there is what is legal, and what is right. Maine's Freedom of Access law could be repealed tomorrow by a group of Legislators who have no more love of critical newspaper articles than our local city councilors, but hopefully, journalists and concerned citizens would still attempt to find out and publicize important matters of public policy for the taxpayers.

"Our whole theory of government is that the people are the governors and they give limited power to the government," Arizona attorney Dan Barr argued in USA Today when his state was considering eliminating laws that protect freedom of access. "For the public to adequately assess what its government is doing, it needs as much transparency as possible."

Take the cruise ship debate going on in the city right now. Do you want the council to just vote up or down on the proposal to increase fees for visiting cruise ships, or would you like to hear the discussion back and forth between them that leads to that decision? That decision is one of many that will affect the lives of residents and businesspeople in our community.

This also goes on at the state level. For insight, check out the excellent work of John Christie with Pine Tree Watch, who exposed the fact that key members of the Maine Legislature's Appropriations Committee regularly hold secret meetings to discuss the future of Maine's massive state budget. It can be found at https://pinetreewatch.org/closed-door-legislators-conducting-public-business-in-private-despite-states-open-meeting-law/.

Citizens in this community, this state and this nation need to wake up to the fact that government cannot be trusted to police itself. Without public involvement and scrutiny, there is no freedom and no sense of government by the people, for the people.

Geiger's criticism of the press at the debate came in response to a question lobbed at her by her husband about civility. In asking the question, he suggested slanted reporting promotes a lack of civility.

The message seems to be that civility requires secrecy.

We would counter that democracy demands transparency.

Comments (5)
Posted by: Nathan Kroms Davis | Oct 13, 2017 14:40

Council contact information (including official e-mail addresses) is available on the City website: https://rocklandmaine.gov/municipal/council/#councilors



Posted by: Adam S Ackor | Oct 13, 2017 08:20

David.  I've had an official email address since I began my term on council.  aackor@rocklandmaine.gov



Posted by: David E Myslabodski | Oct 12, 2017 22:19

RE "We haven't changed our minds on transparency"

 

Regretfully Rockland city council has not changed its secretive non-transparent misdeeds.

 

Only TWO people [Clayton and Glaser] have official e-mail accounts . . .



Posted by: Kendall Merriam | Oct 12, 2017 18:56

City Council has for too long engaged in secret meetings about the city's business. Excellent opinion from Courier staff. We need fresh air, transparency and new counselors.



Posted by: Amy Files | Oct 12, 2017 12:50

Thank you Courier Gazette for posting this article. While I would agree with some assertions that some media coverage leans, unnecessarily towards the negative and sensational, the culture of secrecy and back room agreements instilled in our governmental process seemys to be a continual problem -- once blamed on the "old boy" network, as time passes and we see new faces, it doesn't seem to be limited by gender or old-fashioned attitudes.

There have been too many times, during the past few years, where councilors refrain from adequately explaining their position on an issue in order to allow real and open dialogue at a public meeting.

It is well-known that meetings between councilors, businesses with special requests, and even staff meet together privately to hash out what becomes an essentially rubber-stamped conclusion before the issue is made public or real dialogue is allowed.

I can't think of a better example than the power plant proposal debacle.

When the first (public and last-minute) meeting was called and, in response to public outcry, Councilor Clayton decided to vote "no" - the extreme surprise, anger and exasperation expressed by the other councilors present - that he has the nerve to change his mind - made it very clear that they had all, behind closed doors, without any public discussion or public involvement, decided that they would all vote "yes" to move the project forward.

It's this type of behavior that breeds resentment and distrust and should, at all costs, be avoided.

I can commiserate with Councilor Geiger's assertion that most interactions are technically legal ( and a majority are likely innocent ) -  but public servants, staff and elected officials should try and remember that public perception is equally important in instilling a sense of transparency in the process and when a conversation is private, questions, rumors and hearsay will run rampant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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