A Portland official defended on Monday what appeared to be an illegal City Council meeting that occurred when at least seven councilors toured a small island in Casco Bay.

The meeting came to light after the city and at least one councilor posted photos of the councilors posing and smiling in front of Fort Gorges on a warm and sunny Monday afternoon, apparently unaware that the gathering was an unadvertised council meeting under Maine’s open meeting law.

The city’s official Twitter account posted a photo of at least five city councilors at Fort Gorges, a granite fort that sits on a small island at the mouth of Portland Harbor.

“Council touring Fort Gorges today with @PortlandPRF to learn about the improvements we’re making. Gorgeous day in #PortlandME,” the city tweeted. The tweet was liked or retweeted by the city’s official parks and planning twitter accounts.

The city did not publicly announce the meeting before it occurred, as required by Maine law. Any gathering of three or more city councilors represents a public proceeding under the Freedom of Access law, and citizens must be notified and given an opportunity to attend.

When asked whether the city posted a notice about the tour, City Communications Director Jessica Grondin simply said in an email, “No. Not required.”

Grondin said the law did not apply and that the council had conducted similar tours in the past without public notice and without raising objections from the media.

“It’s not a meeting. Same as when we go on the island tour and I post pics,” Grondin said.

Jonathan Piper, a senior attorney with Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau & Pachios, said the island tour was clearly a public proceeding under state law, and that Portland officials should have known. Piper’s firm represents the Portland Press Herald in court cases and decades ago prevailed in a dispute with Portland about the city’s failure to announce a public meeting, he said.

“It’s an absolute total violation of Maine open meeting law,” Piper said of the trip to Fort Gorges. “A public proceeding isn’t just where you sit down and deliberate and vote. … It’s where you gather information. It’s where you do your job as a city councilor.”

Piper said it doesn’t matter whether citizens would actually want to ride along and listen to the conversations, but that the public knows when meetings take place. “The point is you just give notice,” he said.

The unannounced meeting comes only weeks after the City Council said it intended to hold an executive session, which is closed to the public, to discuss a staffing resources for Mayor Ethan Strimling and his strained relationship with City Manager Jon Jennings.

Although the city argued the closed meeting would have been justified, the council decided to hold the discussion in public after the propriety of the meeting was questioned by the Press Herald, and Jennings waived his right to confidentiality.

Thousands of people who navigate Casco Bay pass by Fort Gorges, marked by its six granite walls and grassy roof. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Fort Gorges is a Civil War-era fortification owned by the city. The popular summer destination for pleasure cruisers is undergoing safety upgrades through a partnership between the city, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Friends of Fort Gorges. The city secured a $20,000 grant from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission to help fund the upgrades.

City Councilor Pious Ali later posted photos to Facebook showing seven city councilors at Fort Gorges. With Ali were Strimling and Councilors Belinda Ray, Spencer Thibodeau, Nicholas Mavodones, Justin Costa and David Brenerman. Councilors Jill Duson and Brian Batson were not pictured.

Maine’s open meetings law requires governmental bodies to provide public notice of meetings so that citizens can attend and monitor discussions about public business.

Under Portland’s city code, at least 24 hours notice needs to be given of public meetings involving a quorum of five city councilors. Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is more restrictive and says public notice is required whenever three or more councilors meet.

The Freedom of Access Act requires all public proceedings of elected officials to be open to the public. “The Legislature finds and declares that public proceedings exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business,” the law states.

The law allows elected officials to converse outside of public meetings, as long as they are not trying to defeat the purpose of the law. But whenever there is a question about the propriety of a meeting, the law states: “This subchapter shall be liberally construed and applied to promote its underlying purposes and policies as contained in the declaration of legislative intent.”

Fort Gorges has no ferry landing and can only be reached by smaller boats. The councilors reached Fort Gorges on the city’s reserve fireboat, the Cavallaro, which it also takes on its annual island tours, most recently in July.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

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Twitter: randybillings