2017-03-17 / Front Page

Council to amend standing rules

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The business of how South Portland does its business may soon change, following agreement at a March 8 city council workshop on a new revision to its standing rules.

The list of 36 rules will be debated in a first reading at the March 20 council meeting, with a final vote expected on April 3.

“This was a lot my idea,” interim City Manager Don Gerrish said, in what was his last meeting at the helm. “So, if there’s issue with this, it all goes down to the guy going out the door tomorrow.”

“We know this is something you wanted to accomplish, so thank you for being determined and sticking with it to the bitter end,” said Mayor Patti Smith.

Some of Gerrish’s proposed changes, such as changing the start time of council business meetings from 7 to 6:30 p.m. probably won’t appear on the draft to be voted March 20, at least based on council reaction.

“Turning the clock back to 6:30 p.m. is already problematic for our workshops,” said Councilor Claude Morgan, noting that he spoke for potential candidates for public office who, like himself, are “working blokes . . . enslaved at workplaces . . . in the hamster cages.”

Morgan also said a 6:30 p.m. start time might encroach on the family dinner hour and discourage public attendance at council meetings.

The biggest proposed change to the rules is in how councilors bring items forward for workshop agendas, a question that has been a bone of contention among some councilors during the past year.

“I say to you, you need to have a process everyone understands, and then you can follow through on that,” Gerrish said. “The existing rules are fuzzy, in my opinion.”

Under Gerrish’s proposal, sponsoring councilors would have to submit a written summary of a workshop topic to the city clerk’s office at least one week prior to the workshop meeting at which it will be discussed. The council generally revises its schedule of upcoming workshops as an agenda item on the first workshop session of each month, held on the second Monday of each month.

The sponsoring councilor would be given up to 10 minutes to make a case for holding a future workshop session on the suggested topic, or 15 minutes total if presenting more than one idea. It would then take the assent of at least three councilors to schedule a workshop on the item.

Presenting almost all new business in a workshop session before scheduling a vote at a regular business meeting is a practice that started in the 1990s, according to Councilor Linda Cohen, who was city clerk at the time, because of a trend of items going up for a vote with little advance public notice, apart from friends of the sponsoring councilor, tipped off in advance, who would pack the meeting hall, sometimes overwhelming other members of the council.

More recently, the council has clashed over how items got on a workshop agenda. Conflict tended to swirl around Councilor Brad Fox, who complained repeatedly that he could not get Cohen, then-mayor, Cohen to schedule his items. Fox would often take to public stumping for suggested meeting topics circulating his ideas using a private email account.

In October 2015, the standing rules were amended to specify that the city manager would maintain a list of potential workshop topics, to be regularly reviewed by the council. The new rules called on assent from at least two councilors to move a topic from the potential list to become a scheduled agenda item.

Only one member of the public spoke at the March 8 workshop. Franklin Terrace resident George Corey who was heavily involved with Fox on efforts to block development of a proposed propane distribution complex at the Rigby Rail Yard. The increase to three yes votes should not be supported because it is hard enough already to get the second, Corey said.

“He tried for eight months on that,” Corey said.

However, Morgan beat back that assertion.

“That just didn’t happen,” he said. “The problem there was that the councilor insisted on asking for the workshop online out of the public meeting. We kept saying ask for it at a public meeting, and he wouldn’t.”

“The reason we are doing this is to see if a thing even has legs for eventual council action,” Morgan said.

“I think that we should be able to convince our fellow councilors if an item is worth bringing forward,” Cohen said. “We should be able to make that argument. This will help us keep from overloading agendas with things that just aren’t going to go anywhere. So, this makes sense to me.”

Although not codified in the standing rules, a template has been created for councilors to use when submitting topic ideas. One concern Morgan had was the extent to which councilors should be able to lobby their peers outside of public meetings to gain support for their proposed agenda items.

“If you are prepping in advance to get enough votes to support your public hearing, does that in fact become a public hearing in itself?” he asked. “I think we should err on the side of caution here as much as possible.”

“One-on-one, councilors can talk to each other (outside of a meeting). So, in my opinion, they could do that,” Gerrish said.

Morgan requested that city attorney Sally Daggett provide a formal legal opinion on that question before the March 20 vote.

The Maine Freedom of Access Act does not prohibit communications outside of public proceedings between members of a public body “unless those communications are used to defeat the purposes of the FOAA.”

According to the FOAA page on the state “Right to Know” website, it “is permissible (for elected officials) to communicate with other members about non-substantive matters such as scheduling meetings, developing agendas and disseminating information and reports.”

However, the courts have found that some one-on-one communications and roundrobin emails and phone calls – known as “telephone trees” – can be illegal if they contain substantive discussions that should be conducted within the confines of a public meeting, including shoring up support for agenda items.

Councilor Eben Rose called the changes “a great improvement,” but asked for greater delineation of how and when councilors can interact with city employees, particularly when information is needed for an workshop topic proposal.

“How the council interacts with staff is still a puzzlement to me,” he said.

The next workshop sessions for the city council, on March 27 and 29, and on April 5, 10, and 24, will all be dedicated to review of the 2017-2018 municipal budget.

After that, a list of 15 items stands at the ready to take up, starting in May. Among those items are:

 A request to lease land to the historical society to enable an expansion of its museum building.

 A new training on the FOAA law.

 Work on a proposed open space plan.

 A proposal, submitted by Fox and Rose, to ban the use of single-use plastic bottles in South Portland.

 A list of ordinance and charter changes to the process for citizens’ petitions.

 A proposal by Fox and Rose to created a new position of multicultural administrator in city hall.

 A proposal by Morgan and Councilor Maxine Beecher to hire and economic development director.

 Separate proposals by Fox and Rose, which maybe joined into one, to cement South Portland’s status as a so-called “sanctuary city.”

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