Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 9, 2017
Concerns about transparency cloud closed-session meetings in Blue Hill
From left, Blue Hill Selectmen Jim Schatz, Chairman Vaughn Leach and Ellen Best, discuss retail marijuana with the public in August.
by Anne Berleant
Actions by Blue Hill Selectmen in two recent executive sessions on a personnel matter have raised concerns over whether selectmen followed Maine’s executive session laws.
After an October 5 executive session called to discuss a personnel matter, selectmen did not state in their public motion the official action taken, as required by Maine laws. Rather, they voted on a motion “to take the action discussed in executive session.” Selectmen noted at the next day’s regular meeting that town treasurer Jody Murphy had been placed on paid administrative leave.
By not stating the specific action, selectmen appeared not to follow the intent of the law designed to properly inform the public.
“Vague motions to approve actions in executive session that fail to specifically and properly inform the public of a public body’s actions run against required transparency,” said attorney Peter Caruso II, of Prince Lobel, the Massachusetts law firm that advises the New England Newspaper and Press Association.
“When a statute is thinly written or rarely enforced, public bodies can play fast and loose with a statute’s interpretation,” Caruso said. “There is a tendency to scarcely reach the minimum required by a public body, rather than act with the transparency that open government requires and that the spirit of the law requires.”
Selectman Jim Schatz asserted that town attorney Diane O’Connell indicated their October 5 motion met legal limits. O’Connell cited attorney-client privilege when asked to confirm this.
Maine executive session law also holds that individuals charged or investigated must be permitted to be present in an executive session discussing the issue involving that individual.
However, at an October 25 executive session on a personnel matter, Murphy was not notified of the session nor was a public motion on action taken after the session included in the meeting minutes. Selectmen stated after adjournment that the session was to discuss a letter to be sent to Murphy informing her of a scheduled hearing to discuss O’Connell’s findings in the situation under review.
Schatz then asked The Weekly Packet to hold the story from online publication and, upon learning that the meeting fell within the paper’s press deadline for the October 26 print edition, he and Chairman Vaughn Leach requested that the story not be published at that time. The Weekly Packet denied the request, as the information was part of the public record. Murphy said she was notified, by telephone, of the scheduled hearing within 24 hours of the meeting.
The hearing will be held on November 13 at 3 p.m. at town hall, and is closed to the public, but if a final decision upholds or imposes discipline to the employee, it then becomes a public record, unless the decision is appealed. Murphy has the legal right to request the hearing be open to the public but has been advised against it by her attorney. She is being represented in this matter by Rudman Winchell attorney John Hamer.