Opponents of a high-rise development in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood are accusing the city of violating Maine’s Freedom of Access Act by destroying audio recordings of Planning Board meetings and not creating meeting minutes.
Keep Portland Livable, a group of residents and businesses challenging the city’s decision to approve four 165-foot tall residential towers on Somerset Street, said in a news release the records either don’t exist or were “mysteriously erased.”
“It’s disgraceful to think that Maine’s largest city doesn’t keep even minimally adequate records of its public meetings,” co-founder Tim Paradis said in a prepared statement.
Co-founder Peter Monro said Keep Portland Livable made a formal request for the materials when it was preparing its lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday in Cumberland County Superior Court.
City officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon. City Hall closed at 3 p.m. because of the storm.
However, a Feb. 6 email from Portland Senior Planner Rick Knowland provided by Keep Portland Livable indicates that audio recordings for five meetings in early 2013 were accidentally erased.
“Without boring you with all the technical details, the recorded sessions of (meeting held Jan. 29, Feb. 12 and 26, and March 12 and 21) were inadvertently erased by the recording equipment,” Knowland wrote. “We had no idea the recording equipment was doing that.”
Knowland went on to offer the group access to staff memos, reports, agendas and staff notes from the meetings.
Keep Portland Livable also alleges the city doesn’t keep written minutes of its Planning Board meetings.
Municipalities are required to keep basic minutes, noting the time, location, members of the governing body present and actions of meetings, according to Judy Meyer, a vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition. Municipalities are not required to keep detailed minutes or verbatim transcripts of a meeting, but they must record which members put forward a motion, second it and record the actual vote, she said.
Boards and committees are not required to make audio or video recordings of their meetings, Meyer said, but when they do, those records must be retained in accordance with the state’s record’s retention law.
Most meeting records must be maintained for at least five years, according to state law.
It’s not clear how the records issue will affect the lawsuit over midtown.
State law says that the failure to keep those minutes does not negate any action taken by the Planning Board, but Keep Portland Livable is asking a judge to vacate the project’s approval and remand the issue back to the Planning Board so a public record can be created.
Meyer said the requirement for municipalities to keep and maintain basic meeting minutes was adopted several years ago.
“So many boards weren’t taking minutes at all and no one knew what was going on,” Meyer said.
The Planning Board approved the ‘midtown’ project on Jan. 14. The plan, vetted at six workshops and two public hearings, calls for construction of the four towers on Somerset Street over the next 10 years.
Federated Cos. plans to buy about 3.25 acres of city-owned land on Somerset Street for the development. In all, the project calls for 650 to 850 market-rate apartments in four towers of about 15 stories each, 1,100 parking spaces in two garages and 100,000 square feet of retail space on Somerset Street, near Back Cove.
Plans for the first phase, approved last month, call for 235 market-rate apartments in a 165-foot-tall building, a 705-vehicle parking garage and first-floor retail space.
The Federated Cos. received about 20 waivers from city standards and nearly 50 conditions of approval to move the project forward.
Keep Portland Livable is challenging the approval on the basis that the project does not conform to the city’s comprehensive plan or the land use code. The group contends the project will block views, be a barrier to pedestrians and become a funnel for high winds between buildings, among other criticisms.
Other litigants in the lawsuit include Elizabeth Humstone, Charolette Fullam, Karin Anderson, Martin Margulis, Sally Williams, 87 Marginal Way LLC, Back Cove Co., Five Liver Co., and 161 Marginal Way LLC.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: [email protected]