“Achieving the true consent of the governed requires something more than just holding elections every couple of years. What we need is informed consent. And informed consent is impossible without open and accessible government.”

John Cornyn, U.S. senator, R-Texas

Thursday police chiefs from Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland will meet jointly with dispatchers from all three communities at Scarborough Town Hall to discuss the possible consolidation of emergency dispatching from the three communities.

It’s will be difficult to report on what happens at the meeting, however, because it won’t be open to the public.

Despite the fact that a large group of public employees from several communities are meeting to discuss a report the public paid $10,000 to get, members of the public were not allowed to attend.

While closing this meeting might be legal under Maine law because those assembled do not constitute a quorum of a legislative body, that doesn’t make it right. This meeting and meetings like it should be open to the public.

As communities around the state explore consolidating services now provided locally with neighboring communities – readers have probably heard the buzzword “regionalization” – meetings like these will become more common. The public deserves an opportunity to sit in on these discussions.

An extreme example illustrates why. What if managers from every community in Cumberland County decided to get together with police and fire chiefs to discuss merging all the police and fire departments into one? Under Maine law, they could close that meeting to the public.

Once managers and chiefs come up with a recommendation and make it to their respective town and city councils, then the public gets to hear it. But the public could be excluded from the deliberations over the recommendation.

There are many reasons why governments can close meetings to the public. Without getting into all the legalese in Maine’s right-to-know law, meetings can typically be closed to the public to protect the reputation of an employee in a personnel matter, to protect a competitive bargaining position when purchasing real estate, to protect sensitive labor negotiations or to allow a town or city council to get legal advice on potential or pending litigation. There are a couple of other reasons, but those are the most common.

While none of those reasons apply to this meeting, there are a couple of good reasons to keep this meeting open. First, the public paid for the report that will, no doubt, be one of the primary subjects of discussion. Second, how these communities handle emergency and non-emergency calls is everyone’s business. What better way to understand the ramifications of consolidating dispatching services than to hear from the men and women who take those calls every day.

Chiefs and managers said they closed the meeting because it’s a “staff” meeting.

If this were a meeting between one of these chiefs and the dispatchers that work for that particular chief, that would be an acceptable rationale. This is a meeting between three chiefs and staff members from three separate communities. A staff meeting cannot be construed to mean every public employee in the region or state.

Call your local town and city councilors and managers and ask them to keep meetings like these open to the public, and call local legislators and tell them Maine’s right-to-know law should ensure the public has access to meetings like these.

Brendan Moran, editor

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