2016-06-10 / Community

Councilor: City not obeying its own laws

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Behind the scenes wrangling over parliamentary procedure has apparently cost the South Portland School District a $30,000 budget bump, designed to cover a shortfall the school board had planned to broach by selling billboard space at high school sporting arenas.

When the city council voted May 16 on warrant articles for the June 14 school budget validation vote, City Councilor Eben Rose questioned a plan hatched by the school board back in February to make up part of a $70,000 shortfall in its $705,287 athletic budget by selling commercial signs. That advertising will be placed around the perimeter of George E. Martin Memorial Field, as well as on the scoreboard and atop the bleachers. Corporate logos also may ring the inner walls and scoreboard of Beal Gymnasium.

Because almost all sports spending is covered by taxpayers, school board members have been loath to place all of the need in the budget, relying over the years on vigorous fundraising from parents and booster groups. According to Athletic Director Todd Livingston, that extra money is used to pay a number of coaching stipends, and to purchase half of all team uniforms, among other things. The new advertising policy is meant take some of the burden off boosters.

“There are parents who are so busy with booster stuff, they never even get to see their kids play,” school board chairman Richard Matthews said in a recent interview.

Rose says he has no agenda on the advertising policy one way or the other. His only concern, he said, is a city ordinance that bans billboards. What signs can be placed in the residential zone where the high school is located are subject to city council approval, Rose said, noting that the ordinance also limits issuance of permits for “portable signs” to no more than three in any 12-month period, for any particular property, business or location. There also is a minimum 14-day waiting period between permits.

“There is nothing in that article that exempts school property or empowers the superintendent any more than a private property owner to bypass the regulations,” Rose said.

With no one on the council save frequent ally Brad Fox supporting his position at the May 16 meeting, Rose dropped the issue and voted for the school budget. However, upon further thought, he said he intended to call for reconsideration of the vote at the next regular council meeting Monday, June 6. The plan, he said, would have been to add $30,000 – the amount Superintendent Ken Kunin said he hoped sign sales would generate – to the school’s bottom line. That, he said, would buy time to review the ordinance restrictions, and whether they apply to school property.

In a May 27 memo to City Manager Jim Gailey, code enforcement officer Pat Doucette said South Portland’s sign regulation does not apply to the high school because state law gives school boards jurisdiction over school property. Meanwhile, Kunin has said the signs would only measure 4-feet by 4-feet in most cases, hardly qualifying them as billboards.

Still, Rose said he is not hung up on the ethics of commercial advertising on school grounds.

“For me the issue is not about signs or athletics or funding, it is about being a city that shows understanding and respect for its own laws,” he said. “If the majority dislikes the law, there are processes in place to change it. But it is not OK to deprive any single inhabitant, or the minority he/ she represents, of his/her/their right under the law by simply ignoring our official duty to uphold it.”

However, Rose said he was “met with hostility” by Mayor Tom Blake when suggesting the do-over vote.

“At one point (city attorney Sally Daggett) weighed in with a contrived parliamentary barrier,” he said. “This side conflict over parliamentary minutiae I see as a power play intended to discourage a right of a legislator to access the full function of parliamentary rules and instead assert the will of the executive branch, on whose behalf the corporate counsel now operates exclusively, contrary to city charter.

“I did not expect this degree of hostility and do not believe it is necessary, but clearly I would not receive support for the motion. I was encouraged instead to let this issue over funding and possible conflict with code play out in other ways, perhaps through negotiation, though I’m not quite sure how that will look.”

For that reason, Rose said, he dropped his request for a motion to reconsider the May 16 school budget vote.

For her part, Daggett wrote in a June 6 email to Blake, Gailey and City Clerk Emily Carrington, that the entire “day’s drama,” as Rose described the late-week exchange, was a result of Rose’s insistence on using a procedure in Robert’s Rules of Order – Rule 35, to be precise – to simply amend the details of the May 16 vote, “and no other procedure.”

However, Daggett wrote “Maine case law has never addressed” use of Rule 35. Instead it has recognized use of a somewhat more complicated “motion to reconsider at a later meeting,” such as described in the city council’s Standing Rule No. 18.

“Given that the school budget was adopted as a whole series of resolves, some of which were voted on as a group and some of which were voted on individually, and given that a number of the resolves affected the cumulative budget totals in other resolves, (Carrington) and I worked hard to try to put together, on short notice, the proper notices and to list the step-bystep procedures needed in order to assist Councilor Rose in bringing forward his proposed amendment to the school budget in the clearest and most efficient manner possible,” Daggett wrote. “I stand by the advice I provided to the city clerk.”

Meanwhile, Carrington said she was unaware why Rose pulled the request to reconsider. After consulting with Daggett on how a series of votes needed to be conducted, the agenda for the June 6 meeting was done and circulated.

“This was completed and I sent the tentative agenda out. Then, at 5:55 p.m. on June 2, Councilor Rose emailed me to inform me that after speaking with the mayor he no longer wished to pursue a motion to reconsider and asked that I remove it from the agenda,” she said.

In a June 7 email, Mayor Blake acknowledged advising Rose against bringing a motion to reconsider the school budget vote, calling that “a poor way to handle his concern.” However, he claimed to have been unaware of any back-and-forth between Rose and Daggett over what form the reconsideration should take.

“Councilor Rose reached out to me and we chatted Thursday evening where again I offered my opinion on his request for reconsideration,” Blake said. “I offered a number of reasons why I felt his approach would not answer his question at all but did have a multitude of negative consequences. The question that Councilor Rose was asking (about the legality of signs) would not have been answered in any way by placing $30,000 into an athletic account.”

Blake said he felt awaiting a response from Kunin to Rose’s concerns and then requesting a workshop on the issue, “would be more positive and productive.”

“As for how Councilor Rose was placed on the agenda, that was between Councilor Rose and our city clerk,” Blake wrote. “From my perspective this issue is resolved and moot. Councilor Rose used his Standing Rule right and requested a reconsideration. He pulled his request on his own accord.”

Rose said he’s not awaiting an opportunity to request a workshop on the sign regulation, and its applicability to school property. Meanwhile, some are getting an earful from other sources.

Franklin Terrace resident George Corey, who was instrumental in driving a propane distribution complex much-feared by Thornton Heights residents from Rigby Yard, has joined the cause.

Over the past week, Corey has peppered city officials, school board members, the attorney general’s office and state Rep. Scott Hamann with emails, calling Doucette’s interpretation of state law “obtuse” and fundamentally incorrect.”

“As you know, the high school sits in residential zoning district Zone A, which restricts outdoor advertising, which the school department proposes to violate,” Corey wrote in a June 6 email to school board members. “However, there is no exemption in the code for such advertising at this moment and it requires legislative action which, naturally, you should undertake if you want outdoor advertising on campus. Otherwise you are breaking the law. And I am sure you want to set a good example for your students.”

Return to top