The LePage administration violated Maine’s open meeting law Monday by holding the first meeting of a “blue ribbon” commission on education funding behind closed doors, the Attorney General’s Office said.

“I know of no exemption that would permit the meeting that occurred this morning to be convened privately,” Assistant Attorney General Brenda Kielty said in an email Monday afternoon.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, and several other people were refused entry to the Blaine House on Monday morning when they tried to attend the first meeting of the Commission To Reform Public Education Funding and Improve Student Performance. Millett, who was told she wasn’t “on the list of attendees,” argued that the meeting was a violation of Maine’s public meetings law.

Standing in the driveway of the Blaine House on Monday morning, LePage policy adviser Aaron Chadbourne repeatedly told Millett and others that it was an invitation-only “breakfast” even though an agenda had been distributed describing it as the commission’s first meeting.

“There was an agenda and if you’re convening the commission, it is a public meeting,” said Millett, the top-ranking Senate Democrat on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “You can’t have it both ways.”

MEETING CALLED INFORMAL

Gov. Paul LePage’s office refused to directly respond to the AG’s opinion, but spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett described the meeting as informal.

“This morning’s meeting was an informal, get-to-know-you gathering in a relaxed setting before the commission starts its work at a later date,” Bennett wrote in an email. “The governor, at this time, has offered to step back from the process to save the (Maine Education Association) and the media from wasting their time attacking him instead of focusing on real education reform.”

When asked again to address the AG’s opinion that the event violated Maine’s open meeting law, Bennett wrote: “It is the first of several meetings and again I will emphasize that any action or proposed recommendations will be made public. This was an introductory meeting.”

A violation of the state’s open meeting law, which is covered under the Freedom of Access Act, is a civil violation punishable by a fine of up to $500. If the meeting did break the open meeting law, everyone who attended would be in violation. It wasn’t clear Monday night if or how the AG’s Office would pursue the matter.

One commission member, Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he objected to the closed-door policy as the three-hour meeting got underway.

“After our introductions, I asked to speak and I said that ‘I am very uncomfortable having a private meeting doing the public’s work in the Blaine House,'” Alfond said afterward. “‘This is getting the commission off on the wrong foot, possibly violating laws around freedom of access and I don’t think this is a smart move.'”

Alfond said LePage told him that anyone who was uncomfortable was welcome to leave, but no one left the meeting.

“Despite our repeated requests for an open meeting, the governor insisted today on closed doors. There is no question this meeting would have happened with or without us,” said Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, who also is on the commission. “I made the choice to stay at the table to represent my constituents and caucus because the education of our children is fundamental to the success of our state. I have also made it clear that all meetings need to be public.”

‘THREADING THE NEEDLE’

Alfond said he contacted the governor’s staff five times about making the meeting open to the public. Although the staff didn’t respond to his requests, they did change the location for the meeting from the governor’s State House cabinet room to the Blaine House, which is the governor’s residence, he said.

“If this was (a legal meeting), it was probably threading the needle. If not, it should not have happened,” Alfond said.

In a video recorded by a Maine Education Association staff member, Chadbourne, LePage’s policy adviser, is seen telling Millett, Rep. Brian Hubbell of Bar Harbor and others that they would not be allowed inside the Blaine House because they were not invited by the governor.

As Alfond and Gideon begin walking into the governor’s mansion, Hubbell, a Democrat who serves on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, asks several times if he can go in, too.

Chadbourne: “If you were not invited, then the governor has asked that you not be allowed into the breakfast.”

Hubbell: “The governor is the one who has asked that we not be there?”

Chadbourne: “The governor is the one who invited the commission to attend and I don’t believe that you were invited.”

Millett rejected suggestions that the Blaine House breakfast was an informal meet and greet.

“It’s not,” Millett said late Monday morning. “You don’t chit-chat for three hours. They are doing business.”

Alfond said there was nothing controversial about the substance of the closed-door meeting. The group heard from LePage and then was briefed on several issues, including K-12 enrollments and cost trends, state tax revenues and the University of Maine System. LePage, in his comments, did not set out any parameters or limitations of the commission’s future work, he said.

“It was a pretty disorganized meeting, and one that seemed rudderless for a long time,” Alfond said. The group decided it would focus initially on education funding and certain academic goals, such as having students reading proficiently by third grade, a benchmark indicator of future academic success.

The commission is chaired by Bill Beardsley, whom LePage installed two weeks ago as the state’s education chief while bypassing the legislative confirmation process. The governor approved a financial order that allows Beardsley, as DOE deputy commissioner, to perform many of the duties of commissioner through April 2018.

‘THIS IS ABSURD’

In a cover letter attached to the agenda, Beardsley thanked the members for attending the first meeting.

“This is a very challenging, high-stakes endeavor with very high potential rewards,” Beardsley wrote.

The DOE did not respond to questions about why the meeting was closed, but did release documents that were distributed at the meeting, including information about test scores, university tuition and other background on education policy.

A creation of the Legislature, the commission is charged with evaluating the state’s current education funding model and reporting back to the Legislature with “recommendations for action to reform public education funding and improve student performance in the state.” The commission is expected to meet through July 2018.

The commission was formed by L.D. 1641, which spells out the commission’s goals and the membership, with the governor or his designee getting one of the 15 slots.

Kielty, who is also the state’s public access ombudsman, said state law stipulates that “advisory commissions set up by the Legislature must conduct their meetings in public unless the law that created the commission specifically exempts the organization from FOAA.”

The bill does not contain any language exempting the commission from the public meetings law.

“This is absurd,” said MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesley. “Obviously the public has an interest in any discussion about ways we can better fund our public schools and improve outcomes for our kids; I find it unacceptable the governor would deny the public entry to this important discussion. Not only does it violate the requirements of the public’s business being conducted in public, but it makes us wonder what the governor is trying to hide by making the commission meet in secret.”

Alfond said future meetings will be public. The next meeting will be on June 6 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Oxford.

In addition to LePage or his designee, Beardsley, Alfond and Gideon, other members of the commission are: Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls; Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport; State Board of Education and Maine Charter School Commission member Jana Lapoint; 2016 Maine Teacher of the Year Talya Edlund; Charter School Commission member J. Michael Wilhelm; Lewiston Regional Technical Center Director Robert Callahan; second-grade teacher Douglas Larlee; South Portland Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny; School Administrative Unit Superintendent Richard Colpitts; University of Maine System Chancellor James H. Page; and Maine Community College System President Derek Langhauser.