Saturday, December 7, 2013
By TREVOR MAXWELL
and KELLEY BOUCHARD
The Portland School Committee will not be forced to release notes from a private meeting last summer, thanks to a unanimous ruling Thursday by Maine's highest court in favor of the committee and against the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
In a case that tested Maine's right-to-know statute, the state Supreme Judicial Court found the School Committee was within the law to hold the 45-minute private meeting with school officials, and that notes taken by two committee members and the panel's lawyer were not public records open to public inspection.
At the July 25 meeting, committee members grilled Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor and Finance Director Richard Paulson about their job performance related to an unexpected $2.5 million budget deficit. Both officials later resigned.
Committee members said the meeting was private because they limited the discussion to job performance. Under state law, such talks are allowed to be held privately if they have the potential of damaging an employee's professional reputation.
The newspaper sued the committee, claiming the meeting went beyond a simple review of job performance by getting into budget issues and thus should have been conducted in public.
But in Thursday's ruling, the seven justices found that ''the notes taken during the session corroborate that neither the budget nor budget policy was discussed.''
In an earlier decision, Superior Court Justice Roland Cole had agreed in part with the newspaper and ordered that some notes taken during the meeting be released. The School Committee appealed, and the notes were withheld pending the higher court's decision.
Melissa Hewey, a lawyer with Drummond Woodsum in Portland, represented the School Committee and argued the case before the justices last November. She was concerned that a ruling against the committee would effectively strip the right to privacy from any public official who deals with budget matters.
On Thursday, Hewey said the court decision reaffirms that right to privacy when it comes to job performance. The decision also makes clear that notes taken during executive session are not public documents.
''This decision gives that guidance, and gives it in a way that makes sense,'' Hewey said. ''It strikes an appropriate balance between the public's right to know and public employees' right to confidentiality.''
John Coyne, the School Committee's chairman, said the ruling vindicated the board's actions. ''It makes it apparent that what we did that night was appropriate, and the business that was done was done under the letter of the law,'' Coyne said.
He said the committee needed to focus on the job performance of school officials, and the intention never was to hide anything from the public.
''It is imperative of me and the people on the board to be as open as possible,'' Coyne said. ''There are times that we need to meet behind closed doors. I would never use loopholes to try to sidestep the public.''
On the losing end, the lawyer for the newspapers described the ruling as ''a frightening interpretation of the right-to-know law.'' Jonathan Piper of Preti Flaherty in Portland said that public bodies could use the decision to keep financial discussions behind closed doors, by framing budget discussions as personnel reviews.
''The greatest power the government has is to tax and spend the people's money,'' Piper said. When public scrutiny on such matters can be bypassed, he said, ''that's a sad day.''
Piper was frustrated with the court, which is usually reluctant to overturn the decisions of judges from the lower courts.
''They went out of their way to overturn every finding of fact that the judge had found to get the result they reached,'' Piper said. ''This ruling means that avoiding embarrassment of public employees is more important than the public's right to know.''
Jeannine Guttman, editor and vice president of the Press Herald/Telegram, was disappointed.
''The reason we took the action was to preserve the concept of the public's right to know,'' Guttman said.
Judy Meyer, managing editor at the Sun Journal newspaper in Lewiston, said only time will tell how the ruling affects local councils and boards. Meyer is vice president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, which works to improve public access to government meetings and records.
Meyer trains public servants about the right-to-know law, and says the overwhelming majority of them understand the importance of public access.
She said members of media organizations and citizens in general have the duty to make sure officials are not sidestepping public scrutiny.
''It could happen, there is that danger,'' Meyer said. ''We have to pay attention to that and not let it happen.''
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: