Contribute to the Portland Greens !!
Monday, August 21, 2006
Local Greens are calling for an overhaul of the tax structure and for tax relief to service centers.
Portland Greens are running more legislative candidates than ever - four years after the election of West End Representative John Eder as the only Green Party state legislator in the country.
Kelsey Perchinski will challenge incumbent Ethan Strimling and Republican David Babin in the District 8 State Senate race, which covers most of the city. Matt Reading is challenging incumbent Herb Adams and Republican Jason Lavoie in District 119 (Parkside, Bayside). Green School Committee member Ben Meiklejohn will run in District 120 (Munjoy Hill) against Republican Jeff Ferland and former Democratic State Senator Ann Rand.
Thursday, August 17, 2006
"Putting Money at the Point of Learning" by Stephen Spring in the Portland Forecaster: August 16, 2006
Two times in the past year, your paper has charged that the Greens have put partisan politics above doing the work of improving our schools. The first time was when me and three other elected officials quested the size of the superindtendent's pay raise in a failed attempt with a 4-5 vote to reduce the raise to something we could support. This led to charges that he Greens were meeting in private to do this and was somehow tied to the Class of 2023 Initiative.
Last week, you decided to focus on some bogus charge that was invented by teh chairwoman of teh school Board, Ellen Alcorn, and her local Party Boss rather than on what the real issue was. The notice that three of us were meeting to chat about downsizign administration brought attention to the fact that Portalnd Public Schools had two assistant superintendents. With one retiring, it was time eliminate one of those $100,000 a year positions. The outcome of what you call a 'shenanigan' is that we now have this money to put at the 'point of learning.'
You call this pushing a party agenda - I call it improving our schools by redirecting meoney so it ends up in the classroom.
Nonetheless, although not required by law, we believ ein being accessible to the public. That the "method of notice ensured that few members of the public attended," was a decision of our Chairwoman to not forward notice to the media, and further more not to notify us that it would not be sent out. Had we known this, we would have done it ourselves.
When we met informally in the park, we made no decisions nor voted. We talked casually about Portland schools, as any other would. That partisanship creates a tense atmosphere on teh Committee, and that "the new school year is not off to a good start," are exagerated characterizations designed to reflect Greens in the poorest light. The Committee rarely votes party lines, members work together in best faith to reach decisions, students attend good schools, and our teachers do a great job educating them. It's going to be a fine school year.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
In December 2005, four Greens on the Portland School Committee presented a proposal to create a task force to consider ways to graduate every incoming kindergarten student from college by 2023.
Democrats accused Greens of violating public access laws by meeting on that topic without giving sufficient public notice. Greens were accused of "maybe" breaking the law, even though no meeting that included three or more of them ever took place.
The charge originates from interpretations of Maine law which spell out how "public notice shall be given for all public proceedings as defined if these proceedings are a meeting of a body or agency consisting of 3 or more persons." The statute further defines School Committee as an applicable "body."
While no group of three or more Greens met that December, Democrats still made accusations. In a Dec. 8 Press Herald article, attorney Jonathan Piper claimed "it is illegal for three or more members . . . to meet in person or discuss business by e-mail or telephone without giving public notice."
Numerous attorneys refute this. The committee itself is a "body" of three or more members. In Portland, it has nine. Three members of that body are, however, not themselves also a "body." The Democrats however, portray that Greens "might" be breaking the law.
If true, every elected city councilor and School Committee member in Portland breaks the law.
Three councilors or committee members are frequently seen grouping together, talking indirectly or directly about city or school business, among themselves, away from others - in parking lots, on sidewalks, in separate rooms, well outside of the commencement and adjournment of official meetings and without public notice.
Nonetheless, an unnamed colleague of mine had expressed a concern about these meetings. As a gesture of respect, Greens did what elected Democrats in Portland city government never do - ask the district to notify the media that three friends on the School Committee would meet in a public park and talk about reducing administrative costs.
However, that notice was not provided. Had it been known the district would not help with its media resources, then notice would have been provided independently.
It's interesting that, whenever Greens begin talking about reasonable controls on administrative costs, the Democrats flex their muscles of accusation.
Indeed, the charge of a clandestine meeting regarding the Class of 2023 came immediately on the heels of four Greens not voting towards the three-fifths requirement to enter an executive session to discuss the superintendent's salary.
Maine law clearly states that "an executive session may be held only if public discussion could be reasonably expected to cause damage to the reputation or the individual's right to privacy would be violated."
Given that all members speak frequent praise about our superintendent, the motion was not proper. Democrats disagreed, and Greens were then accused of illegality.
The Democratic strategy to claim repeatedly that Greens "may" be breaking the law implies guilt in the public forum, outside of courts. They continue claiming that Greens' actions, although no different than those of elected Democrats, are illegal violations of public access laws.
Yet they refuse to sue, instead straddling the line of "maybes." A court ruling that Greens who meet are certainly not breaking the law is not as advantageous as the privilege of being able to insistently state that they "may" be.
I believe all nine members of the School Committee have excellent working relationships with each other, bringing unique perspectives, resulting in healthy and wholesome decisions of the "body."
The portrayal of our committee as divided along partisan lines is less a reality than a convenient description to serve the purposes of city Democratic leaders, about whose motives one can only speculate. It is after all, an election year.
Three friends on the School Committee will be meeting again on Thursday at 5 p.m. in Lincoln Park, and anybody is welcome to attend. It is a public park, in a free country.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
An illegal meeting? From left: Portland School Committee members Jason Toothaker, Stephen Spring and Ben Meiklejohn discussing school business in Lincoln Park on Aug. 3. (photos/Chris Busby)
Portland public school students are on vacation this summer, but there's been no break in the partisan bickering that's plagued the Portland School Committee for much of the past year. Though the nine-member school committee is, officially, a non-partisan board, the five members registered to vote as Democrats and four Green Independent Party members have been sniping at one another like Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
The latest flare-up was ignited by Green board member Ben Meiklejohn, who's running for the state legislature this fall. On July 31, Meiklejohn announced that the four Greens on the board (Stephen Spring, Jason Toothaker, Susan Hopkins and himself) would be meeting at the fountain in Lincoln Park on Aug. 3 to discuss the possibility of reducing school administrative staff.
Assistant superintendent Dana Allen had recently announced his resignation, and Meiklejohn said he thought this presented a good opportunity to cut administrative costs by leaving Allen's position unfilled. In addition, Meiklejohn and Spring expressed concern early last week that the administration would begin a search for Allen's replacement immediately, and bring forward a candidate for the job before the board had a chance to debate whether or not the position should be filled.
But Meiklejohn also had another motive. The meeting in the park was intended to challenge the belief, held by some board Democrats, that it is illegal for three or more board members to meet and discuss school-related matters outside official meetings.
Last fall, the four Greens introduced a new initiative called the Class of 2023, a project to ensure every student has an opportunity to graduate from college. Some board Dems alleged the Greens had met as a group outside any formal board meeting to craft the proposal, in violation of board rules and state law.
The Greens deny this, saying they communicated one-on-one about the Class of 2023 proposal, but Meiklejohn has since come to believe that even if they had met as a group, such discussions are legal. Opinions to the contrary are like "a looming cloud over us that's very suppressive of us interacting… and exercising our right to free speech," he said.
The Greens' concern about Allen's position was largely assuaged at the full school board's formal meeting on Aug. 2, when Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor announced the assistant superintendent job would not be filled before school starts again this fall. O'Connor and other top administrators will take on Allen's duties, and the job shuffling will result in a reduction of one-half of a salaried position this year, saving about $60,000 in pay and benefits, according to administrators. Meanwhile, a board-initiated "efficiency study" of the schools' administration will be conducted in hopes of identifying further savings, said School Committee Chairwoman Ellen Alcorn.
During an Aug. 1 interview with The Bollard, Alcorn said she was mystified as to why the Greens felt a need to meet outside the normal schedule of official board meetings. "It seems there's an implication that some of us care more about administrative efficiencies [than others]," she said. "If that is the perception, I would take issue with that.
"We just need to have some better accountability in place," Alcorn continued. "We need to stop functioning in the realm of political rhetoric [and gather] more data about decisions."
Functioning in the realm of political rhetoric
The three Green board members who showed up at the park last Thursday afternoon – Meiklejohn, Spring and Toothaker – talked casually about the preceding evening's developments, expressing satisfaction that savings would result from administrative restructuring this year and hope that further savings will be found following additional study.
No votes were taken during the 20-minute gathering, which was attended by this reporter and city government watchdog Steven Scharf, an occasional opinion columnist for The West End News. Spring said he hopes to make the meetings in the park a regular, biweekly event during which board members of either political party and members of the public can discuss school matters in a relaxed atmosphere.
From left: Toothaker, Spring, Meiklejohn and Steven Scharf (back to camera) in Lincoln Park on Aug. 3.
Although Meiklejohn does not believe it is necessary to formally notify the public when three or more board members gather to informally discuss school business, notice of the meeting was sent to all eight of his fellow board members, media outlets that regularly cover school matters (The Bollard, The Forecaster and The West End News) and Superintendent O'Connor. Alcorn and O'Connor were asked to pass notice of the meeting along to media on the schools' list of press contacts.
The Aug. 3 meeting was not posted on the school department's online schedule of committee meetings, and it seems notice of the meeting in the park was not forwarded to media on the schools' press list.
In an Aug. 5 article in the Portland Press Herald, Alcorn told reporter Beth Quimby she decided not to forward notice of the meeting to media on the press list because only the chair of the board has authority to schedule school committee meetings. Instead, Alcorn told Quimby, she contacted Portland Democratic Party Chairwoman Sive Neilan, and Neilan "then sent off several e-mails to city officials in protest," according to the article.
Though Quimby's article asserts that the Greens' Aug. 3 meeting "is drawing criticism from colleagues and constituents," no board colleagues other than Alcorn are quoted or referenced in the article, and no constituents, other than Neilan, are quoted or referenced.
The daily also failed to mention a notable board dispute, aired in public at the Aug. 2 meeting, in which Alcorn was accused of violating board rules and state open-meeting laws. (Quimby did not attend the Aug. 2 meeting.)
On June 21, Alcorn, Hopkins and school board members John Coyne and Jonathan Radtke met to discuss contract negotiations with the teachers' union and a union representing administrative employees. No other school board members were able to attend that meeting in person.
As is common practice when union contracts are being negotiated, those present moved to have the discussion in a private "executive session." However, the group of four officials did not constitute the quorum of five members necessary to hold the closed-door meeting. Rather than cancel the meeting, board member Otis Thompson was contacted by phone, and Thompson participated in the private meeting, which lasted 12 minutes, via phone.
"This isn't Who Wants to Be a Millionaire where the chair gets to use one of her Lifelines to call her 'Special Friend,'" Spring wrote in a July 11 e-mail to The Bollard. "This is government; when it comes to negotiating the teachers contract, [Alcorn] needs to follow the law, not to mention basic democratic principles."
Meiklejohn said he could have participated in that meeting by phone, but was not called. "I'm disappointed I wasn't given equal opportunity as a colleague to participate," he said. The practice of calling select school board members "gives some members more access than others, and we're all supposed to be equal."
"In retrospect, [calling Thompson] was probably not the right thing to do," Alcorn said in an interview with The Bollard. "Live and learn." Alcorn apologized for the incident at the Aug. 2 board meeting, and the full board went back into executive session that evening to discuss the contract negotiations again.
The school board's legal counsel, Harry Pringle, told members at the Aug. 2 meeting that courts across the country are "split" on the question of public officials participating in meetings via phone. Pringle said case law in Maine doesn't provide a solid precedent, but added, "I don't think you have a valid quorum unless there are five bodies" physically present at a meeting.
In a follow-up interview with The Bollard, Pringle said if such an issue were brought before a court in Maine, he predicts the court would cite the "long tradition in this state of officials being present at meetings," and reject teleconferencing at public meetings unless state lawmakers specifically approve that type of communication.
Pringle also said Maine law doesn't set a clear precedent regarding the legality of three or more board members getting together for informal discussion of public business – though board meetings are regulated by the charter and policies of the board itself.
Such informal gatherings could become "problematic" if enough members gather to form a quorum or nearly a quorum, make decisions, and then "get together and ratify" those decisions at an official public meeting, Pringle said. But a gathering like the Aug. 3 meeting in the park is not, "on its face," illegal, and would not necessarily require public notice.
"You can draw your own conclusion whether that's a good way for a public body to make decisions," Pringle added.
Saturday, August 05, 2006
A meeting of some of the Portland School Committee's Green Party members to discuss school business at the fountain at Lincoln Park Thursday is drawing criticism from colleagues and constituents.
Critics say the Greens are once again stirring up partisan politics on a committee that traditionally operates outside them.
Green Party members say all they are trying to do is make the School Committee's business more public.
But it appears their attempts at transparency have backfired. Critics also say the Green Party members violated public access laws by improperly calling the Lincoln Park meeting and failing to post it publicly.
The meeting was called Monday by at-large committee member Ben Meiklejohn, a Green who said he wanted to talk about reducing administrative costs in a casual setting.
He sent e-mails to his fellow committee members asking them to join him. He also e-mailed School Committee Chairman Ellen Alcorn and Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor, asking them to notify the public of the meeting by contacting the media.
"We decided to be above-board and to cross all the t's and dot all the i's," Meiklejohn said.
The meeting took place as planned, at the fountain at Lincoln Park next to the Cumberland County Superior Court building. Those present included Meiklejohn and fellow Green committee members Stephen Spring and Jason Toothaker and two reporters contacted by Spring. No other media had been contacted. The meeting ran for about 10 to 15 minutes.
"We just talked about possibilities. It was totally open," said Meiklejohn.
Both he and Spring said the meeting was a deliberate move to make the School Committee's dealings more public. Earlier this year all four Green party members, including Susan Hopkins, pushed to keep the discussion of O'Connor's salary public rather than hold the discussion in secret, a move opposed by the five non-Green members.
Alcorn said she did not follow through with Meiklejohn's request to contact the media because it fell outside board protocol. All meetings are supposed to be called by the chairman, she said, not by individual committee members.
Instead, she alerted city Democratic Party Chairman Sive Neilan about the Lincoln Park meeting. Neilan then sent off several e-mails to city officials in protest.
Defending her move, Alcorn said she alerted the Democrats out of frustration over simmering partisan politics on her board and a belief that someone who would care should know about the Lincoln Park meeting.
"I don't go to Democratic City Committee meetings. I don't have huge ambitions to go to the City Council, but I really care about the School Committee and am at the point now I just do not know how else to handle it," Alcorn said.
She said two meetings with a facilitator to help the committee cooperate and a meeting with the school attorney have failed to iron out differences.
Alcorn said while it is not clear whether the meeting in the park was illegal, it most likely violated the School Committee's own policies, which require all meetings to be called through the chairman.
"Ben Meiklejohn never called me to ask me to call this meeting. It is a violation of our policy," she said.
Neilan called the meeting "very out of order" and criticized the Green School Committee members for not adequately publicizing the meeting in a park few people know by name.
"In Maine there has been a really long struggle to open up the public debate on civic matters to the public. The Green people do not seem to be aware of that long struggle," she said.
Spring said the Lincoln Park meeting was a demand for more openness.
"I see it as a statement that we need to do our business more in the public," he said.
He said the park meeting was such a success, the three decided to gather there at 4 p.m. every other Thursday.
The school district's attorney, Harry Pringle, was unavailable for comment.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: email@example.com