September 15, 2019
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Court weighs legality of closed-door meeting

PORTLAND – The Maine Supreme Judicial Court is weighing arguments on whether the Portland School Committee ran afoul of the law when it held a closed-door meeting about a $2.5 million budget shortfall.

Attorneys for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram told the justices during an hour-long hearing Wednesday that the committee violated Maine’s Freedom of Access law when it held its meeting because discussions of budget matters must be open to public scrutiny.

An attorney for the school committee said the focus of the July 25 meeting was job performance, which gives public officials a right to close their meetings.

School committee attorney Melissa Hewey said the Freedom of Access Act gives public officials the right to privacy when it comes to discussions of job performance.

Hewey said that right would be stripped away from any official who deals with budget matters if the justices uphold the lower court’s decision.

“The Portland School Committee and all public bodies need guidance” on what can and cannot be discussed, Hewey said.

The newspapers’ attorney, Michael Kaplan, said state law requires that discussions about budgets must be held in public, even in the context of job performance.

Kaplan said school committee members wanted to discuss in private how the budget crisis developed. “It’s terrible public policy,” he said.

The case was appealed to the supreme court after a judge found that parts of the meeting were illegal and ordered the release of some of the executive session notes.

During the meeting, school committee members questioned then Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor and two other school officials about the $2.5 million shortfall.

Ruling Aug. 21 on the newspapers’ challenge of the committee’s decision to close the meeting, Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Roland Cole said that parts of the meeting were illegal.

Cole ordered the committee to release part of the notes from its attorney and two members, along with a written statement from O’Connor that was distributed at the meeting.

O’Connor has since resigned as superintendent.


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