Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 12, 2023
Executive session justified as personnel matter
by Jack Beaudoin
While the Maine Legislature intends that public proceedings, actions and records “be open to public inspection and their deliberations be conducted openly,” it does provide a short list of exceptions in which boards and committees may meet behind closed doors.
At a minimum, Maine’s Freedom of Access law states that a body must explicitly reference the exception in the motion to go into executive session. At the January 9 Sedgwick School Board meeting, the agenda item for the executive session cited one of those exceptions—M.R.S.A. 405 (6)(E)—and then added “Personnel” after the legal citation.
M.R.S.A 405(6)(E) reads: “Consultations between a body or agency and its attorney concerning the legal rights and duties of the body or agency, pending or contemplated litigation, settlement offers and matters where the duties of the public body’s or agency’s counsel to the attorney’s client pursuant to the code of professional responsibility clearly conflict with this subchapter or where premature general public knowledge would clearly place the State, municipality or other public agency or person at a substantial disadvantage.”
When asked if the school board’s attorney was present, Samperi and Superintendent Dan Ross said no lawyers were present.
But Ross defended the decision to go into executive session, noting that personnel discussions were permitted to be held out of the public eye.
“We can’t say what went on or was discussed in an executive session,” he added.
The personnel exemption to Maine’s open meeting law allows public bodies to go into executive session when discussing “the employment, appointment, assignment, duties, promotion, demotion, compensation, evaluation, disciplining, resignation or dismissal of an individual or group of public officials, appointees or employees of the body or agency.”
It also permits closed sessions for “the investigation or hearing of charges or complaints against a person or persons” only under the four following conditions:
if public discussion could be reasonably expected to cause damage to the individual’s reputation or the individual’s right to privacy would be violated;
any person charged or investigated must be permitted to be present at an executive session if that person so desires;
any person charged or investigated may request in writing that the investigation or hearing of charges or complaints against that person be conducted in open session. A request, if made to the agency, must be honored; and
any person bringing charges, complaints or allegations of misconduct against the individual under discussion must be permitted to be present.
Following the school board’s executive session, only two votes were taken. The first was to adopt the policy opening the last 20 minutes of basketball practices to the public, and the second was to adjourn.