You won’t find it in Robert’s Rules of Order, but here’s a suggestion for those poor souls in state and local government as they struggle to keep up with the never-ending challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before you vote on this new restriction or that mandate, take a breath.

Twice last week – once at the State House in Augusta, once in Portland – elected officials found themselves in brouhahas that could easily have been avoided by stopping, stepping back from the rat-a-tat minutiae and looking at the big picture behind what we now call our “new normal.”

Let’s start with the state.

Nine times over the past several weeks, Gov. Janet Mills’ administration tossed Maine’s Freedom of Access Act out the window as it conducted online and telephone briefings with state legislators about myriad urgencies posed by the pandemic.

The problem: They neither notified nor provided the public an opportunity to listen in on the discussions. Nor did they document or record the sessions in any way so people could at least go back and see what was said and/or decided.


Because the legislators were corralled by party into separate meetings, the confabs might technically fall under an exemption in the freedom of access law for party caucuses. Which, truth be told, they were anything but.

Once news of the meetings broke last week, the governor’s office quickly announced it would immediately suspend the practice.

Good move.

So now, as they push forward into these uncharted waters, how might our political leaders avoid making more unforced errors? By pausing long enough before each decision to ask four simple questions:

What exactly are we doing?

Why are we doing it?


What are the benefits?

What are the risks?

What the folks in Augusta did, in their effort to communicate quickly and remotely, was proceed without including the public.

Why did they do it? Because, presumably, it was easier that way.

What were the benefits? Legislators got the information they needed.

What were the risks? The public, as thirsty for information as any lawmaker, got shut out. What’s worse, the exclusion threatened to erode trust in government at a time when it’s never been more critical.


“The FOAA (Freedom of Access Act) is supposed to be interpreted broadly in favor of the public’s right to know,” observed Sigmund Schutz, a lawyer who handles such matters for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. “And a deliberate attempt to subvert public access is highly suspect and possibly illegal.”

Now let’s move to the Portland City Council, which walked into a buzz saw on Tuesday by passing an amended emergency order that, at least in the council’s view, prohibited so-called nonessential business from conducting any sales activity whatsoever.

What exactly did they do? By nixing online and telephone sales, as well as curbside pickups, home deliveries and shipping, the council effectively cut off any and all nongovernment income to small businesses that already are hanging by a thread.

“We’re using every bit of our energy to just keep our heads above water right now and this is just like a total blindside,” Erin Kiley, co-owner of the antiques business Portland Flea-for-All, told me on Friday. “Making money so you can pay your bills is the most fundamental part of operations.”

Why did the council do it? Presumably to enhance public safety, although restaurants, hardware stores, pet supply dealers and dozens of other “essential” businesses and services can still do all the things a business like Kiley’s can’t.

What are the benefits of allowing online sales and shipping, curbside pickups and home deliveries for some businesses, while banning them for others? Beats me.


And finally, what are the risks of deciding which businesses can proceed with these prudent public-safety precautions in place, and which must shutter completely? That’s easy – when the pandemic finally ends, the latter won’t be around any longer.

Like the Mills administration, the city of Portland shifted hard into reverse on Friday following an avalanche of criticism and dismay from small-business owners who saw nothing to gain, and everything to lose, from a policy that essentially told them to survive with both arms tied behind their backs.

According to a press release hastily put out by City Hall, “The City of Portland will permit non-essential business activity such as shipping, no-contact delivery, and curbside pick-up in order to fulfill online and phone orders until the City Council makes any changes to the State of Emergency and Requirement to Stay Home Order.”

The release went on to announce that the council will hold an emergency remote workshop – accessible to  the public online – on Monday at 5:30 p.m. “to discuss these rules in more detail.”

“We don’t want to hamstring our local businesses that can perform their business in a way that complies with the guidance around the reduction of the spread of the virus,” Portland Mayor Kate Snyder explained to me on Friday. “But I think it’s really important to have this discussion.”

She’s right – and there are still lots of things to discuss. How, for example, do owners of nonessential businesses reconcile state and local orders allowing them to go to their workplace to perform administrative tasks only, with a statewide order telling us all that we’re supposed to stay home?


And why, when Amazon and other big-box enterprises are reaping a fortune with online sales, would local and state leaders even consider eliminating that lifesaving option for local businesses now struggling just to pay their rent?

To be sure, none of this is easy. From the governor’s office to the local selectperson, I have no doubt that Maine’s elected officials are committed to keeping their constituents safe and healthy amid a crisis like none other in our lifetimes.

But the longer this goes on, and the more the daily challenges pile up, the further a little basic risk analysis will go toward preventing any number of unintended consequences.

And so, powers that be, keep fighting the good fight. Or, as Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Just don’t forget to pause, every now and then, for a deep breath.

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