Gov. Janet Mills’ administration repeatedly flouted Maine’s open meetings and public records laws in the past few weeks as members met secretly with lawmakers and others to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.

Mills and members of her cabinet held multiple online or telephone briefings with large groups of state lawmakers, divided by party affiliation, as they attempted to answer questions and concerns about the spread of the virus.

On Thursday, after the Portland Press Herald discovered that the meetings had been held and questioned their legality, the administration canceled additional meetings with lawmakers and the Departments of Corrections and Labor that had been scheduled to discuss the virus. The secret meetings violate the spirit and possibly the letter of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which protects the right of citizens to know what their government is doing.

“The coronavirus has temporarily shifted the way that government business is conducted, but the Administration maintains its commitment to transparency,” Lindsay Crete, Mills’ press secretary, wrote to the Press Herald. “The Administration is temporarily postponing any further meetings until it is able to work with the Legislature to determine the best process to respond to their questions in a transparent way as we all work to adapt to changes driven by the virus.”

Mills’ staff made no attempt to document or record the meetings it held with lawmakers. The administration also did not give any public notice of the meetings, or allow public access as required by law.

Crete detailed nine remote meetings conducted by administration officials with lawmakers between March 20 and April 15.

“To our knowledge, there are no recordings of these calls and they were not publicly noticed,” Crete wrote in response to the Press Herald’s questions. “However, the information provided during those briefings is information that the Administration also attempts to provide publicly through daily media briefings, news interviews, or responses to questions from members of the media.”

Asked whether Mills was changing the way those remote meetings are conducted because the previous meetings violated state law, Crete did not answer.

Legislatures and municipal governments across the United States have violated open meeting laws as they attempt to function and meet guidelines for social distancing. In March, the Utah House of Representatives violated that state’s laws when House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Republican, invited all 74 House members to a conference call on the pandemic but failed to give public notice of the meeting or set up a function to allow the public to watch the proceedings, according to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Before it adjourned in March, Maine lawmakers modified the state’s FOAA law to allow for remote meetings of state, county and municipal governments as part of an emergency bill to address the pandemic. But the new law, which expires 30 days after Mills ends the state of civil emergency, also requires that the public be able to observe such proceedings.

City councils and school committees in Maine have seen mixed results as they move to remote meetings conducted via video conferencing platforms like Zoom. Others have struggled as intruders have hijacked proceedings, such as an early April meeting of the Bath City Council that was ended abruptly after a troll displayed pornographic material during the meeting.

Sigmund Schutz, an attorney who represents the Press Herald, recommended the administration do at least three things as it moves forward with conducting state government business in response to the pandemic. He said the government should ensure that the public is notified in advance of virtual meetings, provide a way for the public to listen in or see the meeting, and record the meeting and promptly make it available online.

Crete said the previous meetings were organized and conducted in an attempt to be responsive to lawmakers and their constituents.

“Two departments and one agency – the Department of Corrections, the Department of Labor, and the Maine CDC – have held conference calls or Zoom meetings to speak with lawmakers,” Crete wrote. “The intent of these was to be responsive to lawmakers, which, in turn, enables them to be responsive to their constituents.”

Mills also personally briefed lawmakers in separate meetings based on party affiliation in conference calls in early April.

Mills, a former state attorney general, is well aware of the state’s open meeting laws. In July 2016, she took unprecedented legal action against her predecessor, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, after he held an illegal closed-door meeting of his blue ribbon task force on education. LePage’s office eventually paid a $500 fine for violating the law.

Maine’s public meeting law does exclude meetings of party caucuses, but it is unclear why Mills, a Democrat, met separately with Democrats and Republicans. Her office did not respond to questions about why she met with lawmakers based on party affiliation and whether it was done to skirt the state’s open meetings laws. Requests for copies of written questions sent to Mills or her cabinet by lawmakers also went unanswered Thursday.

Schutz called the pattern of unnoticed and undocumented meetings of elected officials, “very troubling.”

“The FOAA is supposed to be interpreted broadly in favor of the public’s right to know and a deliberate attempt to subvert public access is highly suspect and possibly illegal,” Schutz wrote.

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