FALMOUTH — Valentine Sheldon, a council watchdog and frequent critic of how the town shares information, says that “the freedom of access process in this town is severely flawed.”

But a review of state statute and similar procedures in other communities show that Falmouth is following the law and is not an outlier.

Sheldon unsuccessfully ran for Town Council in June and his platform included a strong focus on making town government “as transparent as possible.” In his candidate interview he told The Forecaster the town needs to be much more proactive about getting information out and argued he’s “a proven champion of resident rights and transparency.”

Sheldon moved to Falmouth within the last decade and first became involved in local politics when he and others began pushing the council to repeal wholesale changes made to the zoning ordinance in 2016, which many felt was leading to too much growth and density in residential neighborhoods.

Falmouth resident Valentine Sheldon has raised concerns about the town’s response to his recent Freedom of Access Act requests. Courtesy

In late fall, Sheldon made a Freedom of Access Act request for information specifically related to how the Appointments Committee operated when it was deciding who could best fill several open spots on the town’s now-defunct Long Range Planning Advisory Committee.

He was among nine residents who applied to fill seats on the committee last year, but the council decided that no one would be appointed and the group’s work would be put on hold for now.

Freedom of access

Maine passed its first Freedom of Access Act, or FOAA, law in 1959. The goal is to ensure a “broad right of access to public records” and that governments at all levels act with “transparency and open decision-making,” according to the state’s website.

For Sheldon, there appears to be two issues regarding open access and the ability of the public to monitor governmental actions in Falmouth.

He told The Forecaster that he was forced into “multiple back and forths” with town officials and councilors in his quest to get what he deemed “relevant” emails, texts and meeting minutes in relation to the work of the Appointments Committee, which Sheldon said shouldn’t have happened.

“All (I want) is to get a clear picture of what was going on,” Sheldon said. He last spoke about his perceived difficulties with the FOAA requests during the Dec. 9 council meeting.

And while Town Manager Nathan Poore said Falmouth has fully complied, Sheldon said this week, “I’m still concerned I haven’t gotten it all.” That’s why he’s filed additional FOAA requests. So far, Sheldon has taken no legal action, but said he’s weighing his options, including asking the state to step in and review Falmouth’s procedures.

“It’s not over,” he said.

Public meetings

In addition to questioning how well the town responded to his various FOAA requests, Sheldon also has concerns about how town committees operate, particularly when it comes to the time and place where meetings are held and how the official record is created.

For example, Sheldon says there is a dearth of public information available regarding the work of the Appointments Committee, including any discussion before votes were taken.

But the law only requires that the date, time and place of the public proceeding, a record of who was present or absent, motions and votes, and roll calls be set down, according to state statutes governing meetings.

Assistant Attorney General Brenda Kielty, who is also the state’s public access ombudsman, said in an interview that under FOAA, there’s actually “very minimal requirements” when it comes to creating the record of a meeting.

She also said there’s no requirement that minutes be posted, although most towns in southern Maine, including Falmouth, do put the minutes of at least the Council, Planning Board and other key committees online after they’ve been officially approved.

Kielty also said state law only requires meetings to be open to the public and people are allowed to attend.

Kielty added there are no rules that require either an audio or video record, although again, most towns do take a visual record of at least Council and Planning Board meetings. Many communities, particularly in Cumberland County, also provide live television or streaming of the meetings as they’re taking place.

However, Sheldon feels there’s an overall pattern of public business not being conducted in the public eye.

What he wants, Sheldon told The Forecaster, is an easily searchable database of councilor emails and texts. He also wants an easily searchable database of minutes from meetings and suggests the town reconsider its policy of not recording most committee meetings and take a look at where and when meetings are held to allow for better public access and accountability.

For example, he told Council Chairwoman Amy Kuhn in an email that the Dec. 12 joint town and School Finance Committee meeting should be recorded for “transparency’s sake and due to the subject’s impact on all residents.”

In response, Kuhn wrote, “as you know, the current council policy is to not record committee meetings, although all committee meetings are noticed and open to the public and minutes are prepared and posted online.”

In addition, she said, “rather than overturning a current practice on my own … I would prefer to ask the Appointments Committee to make a policy recommendation … on the recording of committees, in general, that is well researched and well-considered.”

At another time, this past fall, Sheldon also objected to the council holding a work session in the conference room at the police station, instead of at Town Hall.

He successfully argued that the location of the session, which related to planning for a Comprehensive Plan update, should be changed because even though the police station is technically open to the public, it does require being buzzed through a locked door, which could make some residents feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

But, Kielty said state law says nothing about where and when meetings should be held.

“The reality is,” she said, “it’s hard to get all these meetings done and some of this work has to be done in the daytime” and not always at Town Hall. “There are practicalities that must be taken into consideration because there’s a lot that needs to be accomplished.”

Kielty said when she’s asked to officially look into whether a municipality is following the state’s Freedom of Access Act law, what she looks at is “how much effort the community is putting into being transparent.”

However, Kielty would not comment specifically on the situation in Falmouth because she could be called to review its practices.

Town response

Town leaders told The Forecaster that they’re well aware of the questions around transparency and openness that Sheldon and others have raised over the past two years, and said they’re working on improving overall communication.

For example, the town has started a new e-newsletter that comes out twice a month and Poore said there’s a new strategic communications plan now in the works, which should be ready for council review sometime within the next couple months.

Kuhn said in her view “it’s essential for government to be transparent and that duty of transparency exists no matter what. It’s always in the forefront of our minds that we are public servants, here to serve and meet the needs of the community.”

Also, when it came to fulfilling Sheldon’s Freedom of Access Act requests, Poore said the town not only followed state law but its own “Protocol on Requests for Public Records,” which generally allows “every person (to have) access to public records in the possession of the town.”

Falmouth not an outlier

The procedures that Falmouth follows, when it comes to creating a record of committee meetings, how and where meetings are held and how it responds to FOAA requests, is nearly identical to what’s done in South Portland. That’s the case even though Falmouth has a population of just over 12,000, while South Portland has a population of nearly 25,500.

South Portland City Clerk Emily Scully said this week that there are 27 boards and committees at work and that each of those bodies sets its own schedule and a member of the committee is usually tasked with taking notes, which are used to create the official public record of the proceedings.

“We don’t have a template or anything for people to follow, so the minutes we get do differ from committee to committee,” she said.

In addition, as far as she knows, Scully said, no boards or committees in the city rely on audio recordings and only a few are visually recorded, including the City Council. She also said not every committee meets at City Hall. Some meet at the community center or the planning department, for instance.

In Falmouth, former Town Councilor Aaron Svedlow said this week that he’s worked with “a lot of different municipalities across Maine, and Falmouth is definitely on the better end of the spectrum in terms of outreach and access to information.”

But before he left office in June, Svedlow was one of several councilors who voiced concerns about transparency and the need to improve communications with residents.

This week he said that while there is room for improvement, “we do a good job with that overall and there’s certainly a desire among councilors and senior staff to be open and upfront. They’re all very open to engagement with the public.”

“If people are interested in finding something out, there’s a lot of information on the town website,” Svedlow said, adding that town staff is also “very open and accessible” to residents. “I really don’t think there are any barriers to communication.”

Comments are not available on this story.