AUGUSTA — Less than three weeks after paying a $500 fine for violating Maine’s open meetings law, the administration of Gov. Paul LePage is again facing questions about whether it provided adequate notice for a public meeting.

A special working group composed of lawmakers, administration officials and members of the public is set to meet at the Department of Health and Human Services offices in Augusta at 1 p.m. Friday to devise a way to block point-of-sale purchases for items that are illegal to buy with certain welfare benefits. Public notice of the meeting, which is required under the state’s Freedom of Access Act, went out just two days before it was to be held.

“The ‘Feasibility Working Group’ appears to be subject to the public proceeding requirements of FOAA,” Brenda Kielty, an assistant attorney general who serves as the state’s FOAA ombudsman, wrote in a message to Ana Hicks, the chief of staff for House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick.

“Absent emergency circumstances, notice for a public proceeding pursuant to FOAA must allow “ample time” for public attendance and should be “disseminated in a manner reasonably calculated to notify the general public,” Kielty wrote. “I question whether a two-day notice to the DHHS website and a listserv is ample time to reach the general public.”

Nick Adolphsen, the legislative liaison for the DHHS who organized the meeting, said Thursday that Legislative leaders were informed of the time and place of the meeting in June when they were requested to make their respective appointments to the panel. But Adolphsen also said it was an “oversight” on his part that more public notice was not provided. He said if there were members of the public or others who felt they were unable to attend the proceedings Friday because of the short notice he would schedule additional meetings to address those concerns.

Adolphsen also said the law creating the working group set an Oct. 1 deadline for the group’s first meeting. The law also calls for the working group to provide its recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 15.

Sigmund Schutz, an attorney who represents the Portland Press Herald and other news organizations on open meetings and public records law, said the short notice is clearly a violation of both the “letter and the spirit” of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

“It’s compromising the ability of this group to do its job, it’s compromising the public’s right to know and participate and attend and probably at least risk a legal challenge to the validity of this group’s work,” Schutz said. While the short notice may be an honest mistake, it was still “problematic on many levels,” he said

Schutz said the violation isn’t as clear cut as the case in April, when members of the Republican governor’s staff worked to keep the first meeting of a Blue Ribbon Task Force on public education reform behind closed doors. Maine Attorney General Janet Mills brought a case against LePage’s administration in Kennebec County Superior Court over that violation and rather than fight the case, the administration decided to pay the $500 fine.

Even those appointed to the working group said they only found out the meeting was set for Friday, late on Wednesday afternoon.

“The department never notified me of the meeting, the department sent out (an email) listserv late yesterday afternoon and that’s the first time I received any notification from the department,” Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, said Thursday. Gattine, who serves as the co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Service Committee, said he had a previously scheduled engagement on Friday that conflicted with the set meeting time. He intended to show up late for the meeting, which was scheduled for just two hours.

Gattine said he hoped DHHS staff had not already reached a predetermined decision on how to proceed with the point-of-sale ban for those receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families via a state-issued Electronic Benefits Card. He also said the Legislature passed the work of figuring out the details of a point-of-sale ban to the working group because it needed careful consideration, time and expertise that wasn’t readily available as lawmakers worked to craft a compromise that could be acceptable to various stakeholders including the merchants who accept EBT cards for payment.

A law passed by the Legislature this year banned the purchase of various products, including alcohol, lottery tickets, tobacco or adult entertainment products with TANF funds.

“I hope they don’t expect that we are going to get our work done on this (in one meeting) – this is more than one meeting and I’m expecting that we are going to continue to have additional meetings and my expectation is that the notice to the committee members will be a little bit better and the notice to the public will be a little bit better.”

In a email to the Press Herald Thursday, Kielty wrote that she was under the assumption that Adolphsen had notified the public, including the media, about the meeting, and “that notice for following meetings will be provided in ample time.”

Rep. Paul Stearns, R-Guilford, also appointed to the working group, said he knew the meeting was coming up and was told about it by Legislative staff in June, but he too never received any official notice of the meeting from DHHS. “About three weeks ago, I looked and said, ‘Oh my goodness that meeting is coming up, I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything about it,” Stearns said. He said he contacted Legislative staff last week and they confirmed the meeting was set for Friday. Stearns said he doesn’t think there was any ill intent on the part of DHHS and that people do make mistakes.

“They finally sent out an email notification today,” he said. “I think it was really just ineptitude really, and I don’t know on whose part, but I think it just fell through the cracks as far as notification. That was my feeling.”