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AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage and a handful of state lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, convened a secret meeting Monday morning of a legislative blue ribbon task force on education, despite protests from lawmakers, the Maine Education Association and the state’s press corps.

Though Maine law is clear that any meeting of a commission of the Legislature is to be conducted in public, LePage’s staff denied public entry to the meeting held at the Blaine House.

Aaron Chadbourne, a senior policy advisor for LePage, said the meeting was a private breakfast and participation was by invitation only.

Maine Public Access Ombudsman Brenda Kielty said, “I know of no exemption that would permit this meeting to be convened privately.”  

An agenda for the meeting was sent by Commission Chairman William Beardsley, Deputy Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, to commission members who had been appointed by LePage and included lawmakers from both the state House and Senate.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, declined comment Monday on why lawmakers were being allowed to participate in private meetings without sanction.

According to the agenda, commission members were to listen to introductory remarks by LePage, introduce themselves and then receive a series of short briefings from various public officials on a variety of issues facing the state.

The agenda also included a reference to several discussions that included setting priorities and goals for the commission and also determining what types of data the commission would seek during the course of its work.

Several lawmakers, including Sens. Justin Alfond, D-Portland; Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, and Reps. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport and Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, all participated in the meeting Monday.

Alfond told the Sun Journal Monday afternoon that he had objected to holding the commission’s first meeting behind closed doors for over a week, urging LePage’s staff to change the location of the meeting and to make it public.

But when asked why he decided to participate in the meeting despite knowing it was was not legal to do so, Alfond said it was to advocate that future commission meetings be held in public and to represent the interests of his constituents on the important issue of education.

“I made a choice and a choice I thought a lot about,” Alfond said.  

He said the first thing he said during the meeting was how uncomfortable he felt about keeping the first commission meeting from the public. Alfond said LePage invited anybody who was uncomfortable with the closed-door meeting to leave.

Alfond admitted he knew the meeting was illegal but said he chose to stay because he didn’t want to “abdicate my power” to LePage or anyone else. He also noted that he had a positive impact in convincing LePage and others to hold the next commission meeting in public.  

He said he was not going to excuse himself from being involved in the topic of reforming Maine’s public education system, regardless.  

“If they are talking about major reforms to our education system — you know what? I’m going to be in the room,” Alfond said.

Thibodeau’s spokesman Jim Cyr said the meeting was conducted by LePage and that Thibodeau did not have any comment to offer. Cyr declined to comment on why a sitting state senator would agree to participate in the secret meeting and said he would ask Mason to speak to that himself. But as of 3 p.m., messages to Mason had gone unreturned.

Eves’ spokeswoman Lindsay Crete also did not offer any comment on why lawmakers from the House of Representatives were participating in a meeting that was in violation of the state’s open-meeting laws.

A message to Fredette spokesman Rob Poindexter went unreturned Monday as well.

LePage spokesman Peter Steele said that the meeting was simply an informal “meet and greet” and no commission work was being done. 

A subsequent message to Steele requesting which exemption in the law the governor’s office was employing to keep the meeting closed also went unreturned Monday. State law requires entities to reference by title and chapter the exemptions they are using when closing meetings to the public.

“This is absurd,” Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association and elementary teacher on leave from Regional School Unit 5 said in a prepared statement. “Obviously, the public has an interest in any discussion about ways we can better fund our public schools and improve outcomes for our kids. I find it unacceptable the governor would deny the public entry to this important discussion — not only does it violate the requirements of the public’s business being conducted in public, it makes us wonder what the governor is trying to hide by making the commission meet in secret.”

According to Beardsley’s welcome letter, if commission members can find consensus “on even a few higher order Maine Public K-20 education issues, we have the potential for arriving at grand bargains and follow-on action plans for transformative educational advancement in Maine.”

The primary focus of the commission’s work, according to Monday’s agenda, is public education finance and expenditures and educational achievement. 

The agenda included microbriefings on tax structure, public school enrollment overview and cost trends, as well as other specific policy questions.

Under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, public proceedings are defined as “the transactions of any functions affecting any and all citizens of the state” for most governmental committees, subcommittees, commissions, boards, agencies and authorities. The law extends to advisory organizations that are authorized by law, resolve or executive order of the governor, including the commission that met Monday. Under FOAA, advisory organizations are exempt only if the authorizing law specifically states that in writing.

The commission, formed by the passage of LD 1641 and signed into law on March 10, carries no public-access exemption. By law, the commission is charged with reforming public education funding and improving student performance.

Its creation was determined to be an emergency measure because, according to the language of the bill, the “costs for providing public education have increased at an alarming rate despite declining student populations and without significant improvement in student outcomes, requiring immediate attention to address the underlying condition and its consequences.”

The 15-member commission, which includes two members of the public, is required to meet six times over the next two years. Under FOAA, those meetings “shall be open to the public” and “any person shall be permitted to attend.”

Just after 1:30 p.m. Monday — two hours after the commission meeting ended — the Senate Democratic Office issued a written statement on behalf of Alfond and Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon, both of whom attended the morning meeting.

“I began this meeting with a call for open doors,” Alfond said in the statement. “Unfortunately, Gov. LePage said he preferred to have this meeting behind closed doors. I firmly believe that the commission’s work should be done in full view of the public. With so much at stake, our constituents and the news media deserve to know what solutions are being discussed and what they will mean for our schools and for taxpayers.”

In the statement, Gideon said, “There is no question this meeting would have happened with or without us” and “I made the choice to stay at the table to represent my constituents and caucus because the education of our children is fundamental to the success of our state. I have also made it clear that all meetings need to be public.”

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, the lead Senate Democrat on the Education Committee and co-chair of the Commission to Strengthen the Adequacy and Equity of Certain Cost Components of the School Funding Formula, was barred from the meeting.

In the Senate Democrats’ written statement, she said, “This commission will discuss critical issues, including the state’s need to meet its obligation to local taxpayers by paying its fair share of education costs.

“There’s a lot of important work to be done for our schools and Maine people deserve that work to be done in an open, transparent way,” she said.

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, who also serves on the Education Committee and is Millett’s co-chairman on the commission for adequacy and equity, said, “The commission is tackling serious issues about student learning as well as costs. We’ve been working on these issues for years and were eager to participate, but we were turned away.”

In the Democrats’ statement, Hubbell stressed, “These are complex issues that need all of us to work together.”

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for June 6 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris. Alfond said that meeting and “all future meetings” of the commission would be conducted in public.

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