Meeting in the dark is nothing new for county

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An asset for jazz musicians and stand-up comics, improvisation has little place in the halls of government, especially the secluded corridor where the Androscoggin County commissioners hold court.

Yet, on Wednesday, commissioners nimbly “improved” a meeting to review the budget prepared by Sheriff Guy Desjardins. After adjourning their scheduled budget meeting with the new sheriff, the commissioners elected to sit around for awhile to fiddle around with his figures, without notifying anyone.

Doing so was undoubtedly and incontrovertibly wrong.

Assembling without prior public notice, and without a stated purpose, violates the cardinal rules of open government. Counties in Maine are renowned for operating in the dark ages as it is, and here is another example of our county’s sad service to its constituents.

Commissioners meet during daylight hours in the county building in Auburn. Visitors wishing to attend can wander the building without finding the correct room. Then, after locating it, there’s little to inform visitors the session they’ve stumbled upon is the county’s governing board.

The commissioners’ cramped meeting space has room for a handful of spectators. Standing room only, however, means borrowing a chair from a nearby employee break room. Commissioners peer out from the end of a long boardroom table, flanked by advisers, like royalty. Supplicants sit opposite the board.

Meetings require vigilance by interested parties to track when, and where, they are scheduled. And, as we’ve said before, the county maintains no Web siteto access its public materials.

Most about the operation of the county commissioners disinclines public engagement, and now, the board is apparently skirting Maine’s open meeting laws. The trio of commissioners are meeting, whenever and wherever they gather. Workshops without specific scheduled votes are fine, as long as adequately noticed.

The commissioners’ impromptu meeting on Wednesday reportedly even took the subject of the meetings – Desjardins – by surprise.

During a budget meeting in December, former commissioner Patience Johnson criticized municipal governments for failing to support the county during its hour of need. “We asked them to come with us [to Augusta] to increase the real estate transfer tax,” she said. “They never come.”

The county needs only a mirror to understand why. Commissioners do the least necessary to bring their actions into the public domain, despite the millions of taxpayer dollars under their purview. Counties also remain a haven for patronage, and the board seems to maintain a laissez-faire attitude about the basic responsibilities of governance.

In a perfect world, Maine’s county governments would be whisked away into the footnotes of history, closing the chapter on an outdated era of governance best applied today to mark geographic boundaries.

Maine, unfortunately, is stuck with them. So we’re going to watch it carefully, and each time the Androscoggin County commissioners do something hinky – or downright obstructionist – we’re going to shed light upon it.

If taxpayers must fund such buffoonery, we should keep close tabs on it.

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