SOUTH PORTLAND — City officials plan to hold an invite-only virtual meeting Friday with an untold number of residents, business owners, social service agency representatives and others who are concerned about homeless clients being housed at four local hotels.

City Manager Scott Morelli will go ahead with the closed meeting despite being warned by an attorney for the Portland Press Herald that it would violate Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, according to a letter from City Attorney Sally Daggett of Jensen Baird.

Morelli sent a letter Feb. 11 inviting dozens of residential and commercial abutters and neighbors to the 1 p.m. Zoom meeting to discuss their concerns about theft, trespassing, drug use, harassment and general safety issues related to homeless people staying at the Days Inn, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and Howard Johnson hotel.

Morelli said the meeting would address a dramatic increase in calls for police, fire and emergency medical services to the hotels since they began serving as temporary shelters for hundreds of homeless individuals and families since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To help answer any questions and identify potential solutions, the meeting would include Morelli, several other municipal employees and various unnamed representatives of the city of Portland, MaineHousing and other agencies.

Asked which residents were invited, Morelli said he included all abutters within 1,000 feet of the hotels and residents of the Thornton Heights and Sunset Park neighborhoods, which extend along Route 1 and could put participation in the hundreds, depending on how many people are tuning in from each house.


Morelli compared the planned meeting to one he might hold in his office with a few people, without feeling obligated to invite the wider public or news reporters.

In her letter, Daggett pointed out that state law defines public proceedings as “transactions of any functions affecting any or all citizens of the state by… any board, commission, agency or authority of any county, municipality, school district, or any regional or other political or administrative subdivision.”

“The city manager and other city department heads who will be attending (Friday’s) meeting do not, either individually or collectively, constitute a board, commission, agency or authority of the city,” Daggett wrote in a letter Thursday answering concerns raised by Benjamin Piper of Preti Flaherty, attorney for the Press Herald.

However, in his Feb. 19 letter to Morelli, Piper pointed to a 1988 court case, Lewiston Daily Sun v. City of Auburn, in which the Maine Supreme Judicial Court determined that the list of municipal bodies identified in the open meeting law is illustrative, not exhaustive.

Piper emphasized that the court rejected a formalistic view of the types of bodies subject to these requirements, concluding that such a view “elevates form over substance” and contravenes the requirement that (the Freedom of Access Act) be construed “liberally to ensure that public proceedings ‘be conducted openly.’ ”

After receiving Daggett’s response, Piper noted that the penalty for violating the open meeting law is a maximum $500 fine.


Asked why the City Council isn’t addressing concerns about the hotels in a public session, Mayor Deqa Dhalac referred to Morelli’s letter.

“I believe Scott’s letter was clear,” Dhalac said in a written statement. “The meeting is not a council meeting. It is not a policy discussion. It’s about concerns abutters have about the hotels used as shelters.”

Dhalac said further that the meeting will be an opportunity for residents and businesses near the hotels to express their concerns.

“So that the hotel owners, the city of Portland and other social service organizations can all hear these concerns and hopefully come up with solutions that work for everybody,” Dhalac said.

The mayor didn’t answer whether she could be sure that no city councilors will attend the virtual meeting or see a recorded version afterward.

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