What county commissioners' live executive session taught us

Mar 07, 2019

On Feb. 12, the Knox County commissioners held a closed-door meeting, supposedly to provide an evaluation of County Administrator Andrew Hart.

The commissioners did not realize they were broadcasting the private meeting live on the internet, and viewing it let us in on two interesting facts.

One is that the meeting they had confirmed our long-held suspicions that when elected officials go behind closed doors with the understanding that they are only going to talk about one topic, they actually use that time away from the prying eyes of the public to talk about whatever they want.

In this case, the commissioners spoke at length during the closed-door session about troubles at the Knox Regional Communications Center (which most of us probably think of as dispatch). The center is down four dispatchers, and apparently they discussed criticism of how the facility is managed.

The actual issues at the communications center is really another topic. The issue we are concerned about here is transparency to the taxpayers. Elected officials are only allowed to go behind closed doors under state law for a few very specific reasons. They can do so to talk about personnel issues, or to their lawyers or to handle union negotiations, for example.

However, they are not allowed to say they are going in for one reason and then talk about whatever they want.

The second related issue is that they likely broke the law. During this private talk, they talked about problems with a department run by Communications Director Linwood Lothrop. State law requires that if an employee is to be discussed by a board in a closed-door session, that person must be notified in advance and offered an opportunity to attend. Hart was in attendance at the meeting, but Lothrop was not there.

We single out this board because we caught them, but we suspect other public elected boards do the same thing. We would ask elected officials to resist the temptation to try to keep things quiet.

All of our elected officials are people who volunteer their time to serve their communities. It is a hard, often thankless job, and it comes with plenty of criticism, both deserved and otherwise, from the community. Some of the issues they have to talk about create awkwardness and tension.

However, the public has a right to know how its tax dollars are being spent, and the challenges those who provide us with critical public services are facing.

To work effectively, government needs a certain amount of the public's trust, and incidents like this one erode that.


Regional approach to ambulance services makes sense

We were pleased to see Rockland and Camden officials talking to each other to try to find the best approach to offering regional ambulance services.

The fire chiefs and ambulance directors are the experts in the field and we will not try to advise the towns on what is best, but we do believe that more cooperation between municipalities is a good thing. A few years back, the Chamber of Commerce helped us understand that we are all part of one Midcoast region, and what is good for one community is often good for all. The same is true of dealing with some government services.

Ambulance services have seen a shift. It is harder to provide absolutely vital services in small communities with all-volunteer departments. Paramedics and EMTs need specialized training, which is an investment on their part, and they are like the rest of us in that they need to keep a roof over their heads, heat in their homes and food on the table. They must be paid for the critical work that they do, because that work has become highly specialized over the years.

How do we pay for all of these services? Rockland and Camden have done a good job of providing what is needed to their residents and keeping costs in check, but a wider regional approach could be the best move for the future.

We look forward to seeing more cooperation between communities on this and other issues.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Jay Feyler | Mar 07, 2019 08:42

When a Board or Commissioners are discussing the performance of their manager it is totally appropriate to talk about how things are running in any given department, it is part of the evaluation.  It is NOT appropriate to talk about other employees and it is imperative that the person running the meeting is aware of the laws and shuts down the offending elected official.

It also is not fair to assume that other elected officials do the same thing, because we do not here. We offer a tremendous amount of training for elected officials and we hope they take advantage of it and if they don't, well unfortunate things happen.

I do not assume that every reporter is as insensitive and irresponsible and live streams homicide scenes so the family can find out about it on Facebook, please do not assume that all elected officials operate the same.


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