What’s the big secret in Poland?

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On Tuesday, the Poland Board of Selectmen convened an executive session at a special meeting.

The secret meeting was a mistake.

The board, along with two auditors, the town’s financial director, the town manager and an assistant to the town manager, moved behind closed doors, citing state law that allows them to do so to discuss legal rights and duties and responsibilities with their attorney. The problem is, their attorney was not at the meeting.

The meeting was called to review a draft audit of the town’s finances, an audit that makes some findings about missing rescue-service billing records.

According to Board Chairman Sandra Knowles, the Maine Municipal Association suggested the board hold its initial review of the audit behind closed doors because there “may be something in the recommendations from the auditor that could have said something about an employee.” The town would not, understandably, consider discussing an employee’s job performance in open session.

It would have taken minutes to make a simple phone call to the auditor to explain the sensitivity of the discussion and ask whether an employee was named in the audit. Then, selectmen could have structured the meeting to protect any individual who may be named while still discussing the accounting of the public’s money in the open.

They didn’t do that. Instead, while knowing that citizens are eager to get the billing mess resolved, town officials shut the door and reviewed the financial report in secret.

In most cases, audits are public records, including draft upon draft of an audit as it’s taking shape. The exception, based on 20-year-old case law, is when an audit is delivered and reviewed in executive session. If that happens, the audit – draft or otherwise – is not yet a public document, shielded by the confidentiality of the closed-door meeting.

Selectmen know there is intense public interest in this audit, which is weeks overdue. While discussing an audit in secret is permitted, it is not required. The board has utter discretion in whether to conduct its business in the open or in secret. In this case, it chose secrecy.

According to Knowles, selectmen are “all for public disclosure.” She pledged that when the audit is complete, which could take another couple of weeks, it will be made public.

Knowles also said she doubts that there will be much change between the draft audit and the final report. If that’s the case, why not release it now? Why not answer questions that citizens have now?

Knowles, who is defensive about the board’s move behind closed doors, is unhappy with how the report of the missing billing records has been played in public. “There are a lot of good people in Poland,” she said, who don’t appreciate the scrutiny.

She’s right. There are a lot of good people in Poland, and these good people deserve an accounting of every tax dollar. That accounting is available now, in draft form, and could be – if selectmen truly value open government – made public at the very next selectmen’s meeting.

If that doesn’t happen, the public will be left wondering what the big secret is.

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