LEWISTON – The tension between Mayor Larry Gilbert and Lewiston city councilors came to a head on Feb. 5.

They’d been sparring over whether to give a group studying Bates Mill No. 5 more time to complete its work. Councilors said they wanted the report finished by March 4; Gilbert directed city staff to give the group more time.

But Council President Tom Peters countermanded that, and directed staff to hold fast to the March 4 deadline. Then councilors stepped forward to put the mayor in his place.

“Sooner or later it was going to come to this,” Councilor Denis Theriault told Gilbert. “In my opinion and according to Charter, the Council is in charge. Should a tie vote occur then you break the tie. Don’t count on that job in the foreseeable future.”

Theriault argued that councilors had selected Peters to speak for them and that was that.
“It would appear you have another Council you can’t work with,” he added. “…let’s NOT do coffee.”

Councilors Bob Reed and Tina Bailey echoed Theriault.

“So Mister Mayor please remember that you are a figure head, not a councilor,” Bailey said. “If you can’t stay within the boundaries of your job as Mayor of the Great City of Lewiston than I have to wonder what kind of job you will do for us in Augusta.”

The squabble was a demonstration of how policy is being set in Lewiston’s government these days and just who is doing it. It was compelling, it was informative, the sort of debate Lewiston citizens used to benefit from.

And it was all done behind the public’s back, via e-mails traded back and forth among city councilors.

That exchange was part of thousands of e-mail messages obtained by the Sun Journal from the Lewiston and Auburn city councils under a Freedom of Access Act request for access to all e-mail communications dating back to December.

The responses by public officials in both cities showed those in Auburn use e-mail very little compared to the numerous e-conversations flowing in Lewiston.

Auburn Mayor John Jenkins forwarded no e-mails, saying he doesn’t use e-mail to communicate with councilors or constituents, preferring face-to-face contact. Auburn Councilors Mike Farrell, Bob Hayes, Bruce Bickford, Bob Mennealy and Ron Potvin each sent along a handful of e-mails, while Dan Herrick and Ray Berube said they don’t use e-mail, either. Laurie Smith, then-acting city manager, hand-delivered a packet of 54 printed e-mails.

Lewiston’s Gilbert responded to the Sun Journal’s request by forwarding 180 e-mails from his personal AOL account. City Adminstrator Jim Bennett gave the Sun Journal access to 800 of Gilbert’s e-mails on his city account and another 1,500 e-mails to and from city councilors sorted from Bennett’s own city account.

But Lewiston City Councilors Tom Peters, Nelson Peters, Larry Poulin, Theriault, Bailey, Elizabeth Dube and Reed all responded in kind, saying they habitually delete e-mails from their systems as soon as they’ve read them.

That doesn’t cut it, according to the Maine Press Association’s or the Maine Municipal Association’s interpretation of Maine’s access laws. E-mail is a public record if it’s used in the transaction of public business by municipal officials. And, like all public correspondence, it needs to be retained according to rules set out by the Secretary of State and Maine State Archives for disposition of local government records.

Councilor Tom Peters said Wednesday that councilors do save the e-mails that matter, by forwarding them to the city administrator.

“We are bombarded with messages, and I get them from all over the place,” Peters said. “I look at them, read them to see if they’re of any value and delete them. If there is something of value, I forward them to Jim because we know he’s keeping all of those e-mails.”
E-mail is a conundrum for public officials. On one hand, it lets councilors share information far and wide and with ease. Complaints about a pothole on Main Street can be forwarded to the public works director – with copies sent to the city administrator, the mayor and council colleagues for good measure. It’s done in a few keystrokes and there are numerous examples in the e-mails provided to the Sun Journal of councilors passing along constituent problems or asking questions of city staff.

But e-mail’s ease of use can lead to misuse very easily. A question to city staff, copied among councilors, can set off a debate that’s settled quickly. And that debate, sequestered safely behind computer firewalls, is never heard in public. Councilors can walk into their chambers with all their doubts settled, their questions answered and their minds made up long before a public hearing.

That’s what’s happened during a May 20 vote on parochial school busing, according to Mayor Gilbert. In previous meetings, councilors had said they planned to cut that $56,000 budget line.

“The very next meeting, when people show up to discuss it, they change their minds,” Gilbert said. “Peters spoke up before there’s any discussion, saying ‘we’re putting that money back in.’ So I want to know, who made that decision and when? Did they discuss it outside of the meeting and if so, where and who made it? In opinion, that is not transparent government.”

Often, Lewiston’s numerous e-mail debates eschew Roberts Rules of Order in favor of the flame war format. In one exchange, over why money for a Kennedy Park pool house was cut, they sound more like combatants than colleagues.

“Of course, what does my opinion count, I was simply elected by some 5,000 Lewiston voters who expected me to vote on their behalf,” Gilbert wrote to Peters in an April 21 exchange. “You, who were elected by some 360 voters, would want to muzzle me at any cost. Dream on, it will not happen no matter how hard you try. With my experiences throughout my career, I am certainly on to your game no matter how smooth you may try to portray yourself.”

Gilbert copied that note to other councilors, and they replied. Councilor Reed turned the criticism back on Gilbert, in an e-mail later that morning:

“I have seen you support items that I can only guess were done so out of spite for some on us or to create a controversy where none existed,” Reed wrote. “Lastly, as to Mr. Peters getting less votes than you, I haven’t heard that logic since junior high….what a bush league, no class thing to come up with from someone who seems to think they are so righteous.”

Gilbert responded:

“Everyone I have talked to has said that the Bob Reed they see today is not the Bob Reed they saw before the election who is now flexing his ‘muscles of power.'”

Councilor Theriault wrapped up the exchange, echoing Reed and applauding Peters.

“There is no way I would have you speak for me. You are full of yourself. You wear your jealousy on your sleeve Mr. Mayor for all to see,” he wrote to Gilbert. “If it’s war you want with this Council, so be it!”

What the public doesn’t get to see is elected officials struggling to define their roles. Mayor Larry Gilbert clashed regularly with members of his old council, accusing them of overstepping their bounds and intruding on his territory.

But Tom Peters, as council president, has narrowed the mayor’s territory significantly. According to the 2008 Lewiston City Council, the mayor can no longer drive policy or even set council agendas. The tension can be sensed at council meetings, but the hostility in their e-mail is obvious.

Peters said it doesn’t serve the city to make that information public. Councilors have since cut back on their e-mail use for that reason.

“I don’t think disagreements, or trying to sort out who’s doing what to whom or how we play our roles in accordance with the charter, should be laundered in public,” Peters said. “We don’t want to look like a dysfunctional council and mayor situation, because that’s not real and we don’t want to give people that impression.”

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