Embracing the shadows
As Brunswick officials consider weighty matters such as building a new police station, redeveloping Brunswick Naval Air Station and welcoming passenger rail to town, they frequently encounter accusations that their deliberations lack transparency.
That’s rarely the case. In fact, those required to sit through Town Council meetings that often approach three hours might argue that too much government “sausage making” takes place in public.
Likewise, the town’s residents have a long history of expressing their sentiments demonstrably and in great detail to municipal officials when proposed — public or private — projects, expenditures or service cuts vex them.
In most instances, complaints that Brunswick town government lacks transparency derive more from dissatisfaction with the outcome of a vote than from the process employed to reach a decision.
People unhappy with a Town Council or municipal staff decision tend to grouse that their voices weren’t heard or that someone else received preferential treatment. That they do so in a safe public forum, with their words broadcast by the local access television station, provides credence to the notion that Brunswick officials recognize the importance of conducting the town’s business in the open.
Then something like Monday night’s private meeting with the Brunswick West Neighborhood Coalition occurs to raise new doubts.
At the invitation of the leaders of the coalition, which opposes construction of an Amtrak train layover facility at the Northern New England Passenger Rail Association’s preferred site, Town Manager Gary Brown spoke to the group. Four town councilors — Joanne King, Benet Pols, Debbie Atwood and John Perreault — accompanied Brown.
When asked about why municipal government did not provide advance notice of the meeting, Brown cited town attorney Pat Scully’s opinion that Maine’s Freedom of Access Act only requires public notice for a meeting at which a quorum ( five town councilors) would be present.
Sigmund Schutz, a Preti Flaherty attorney who co- wrote “ Maine’s ‘Right to Know’ Law: An Introduction and Guide” and who represents this newspaper, disputed Scully’s interpretation, pointing to a subsection of the Maine Freedom of Access law that identifies a gathering of three or more town councilors as a meeting requiring advance public notification.
The issue isn’t which lawyer’s opinion should prevail. It’s that, when presented with a choice, Brunswick officials latched onto the interpretation that pushes government behind closed doors. In doing so — especially when meeting about a controversial project already mired in questions about transparency — Brown and the four councilors rejected a chance to champion open government, thereby stoking the flames for conspiracy theorists.
Adhering to policies that reflect the most open approach to government, rather than lurking in legal gray areas, would better serve the public trust and disarm those who impede real progress with self- serving, obstructionist assaults on the governance process.
The next time Brunswick officials face an assault on their integrity, they will have no one to blame but themselves.