The first meeting this week of a special state commission on education funding has made clear that the panel has a lot to learn about government transparency and accountability. The group flouted Maine’s open-meetings law by getting together behind closed doors. Each member of the commission could now face a hefty fine – and they should, if the public’s right to know is to stand for anything.

Those who came to Augusta for Monday morning’s education task force gathering could be forgiven if they thought they’d been transported to a New York nightclub with a rigorous screening policy. LePage policy adviser Aaron Chadbourne stood outside the Blaine House, where the event was being held, and repeatedly informed legislators, reporters and others that the meeting was off limits.

“If you were not invited, then the governor has asked that you not be allowed into the breakfast,” Chadbourne told state Rep. Brian Hubbell, a member of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, in a video recorded by a state teachers union staffer.

But under Maine’s sunshine laws, the case for allowing a closed-door meeting of the commission is weak at best. The task force was created by publicly elected state legislators to develop recommendations on how best to spend the taxpayer money allocated to Maine’s K-12 public schools. And there’s no evidence that the meeting’s agenda included any of the very few topics that a public group is allowed to discuss in private.

Attorney General Janet Mills and state public access ombudsman Brenda Kielty have both declared that the LePage administration violated state law by holding the education commission’s inaugural meeting in private. If the Attorney General’s Office decides to proceed with sanctions, each person at the meeting could be fined up to $500.

We believe that the attorney general can’t let these violations go by. Twelve of the 15 people at Monday’s meeting are elected or appointed officials who are expected to know the state Freedom of Access Act, which includes the open meeting law. But nobody left Monday’s gathering – which indicates that they either don’t know what state public access regulations entail or that they’re not worried about being penalized for violating them. Neither is very comforting. And it will go on this way unless officials are held responsible for conducting the public’s business where the public can see them.

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