City of Presque Isle likely violated law on public access to council meeting

4 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A meeting by the Presque Isle City Council last week likely violated a new law on public access to remote board meetings. 

The Presque Isle City Council meeting on Wednesday, May 6, was held in a password-protected Zoom video conferencing channel and was not broadcast live on any medium. While the city requested comments from the public on its agenda, there was no provision for the public to watch the proceedings until three days after they had occurred.

LD 2167, signed by Gov. Janet Mills on March 18, governs the rules under which municipal bodies can hold meetings up until 30 days after the end of the civil state of emergency currently in effect in Maine.

Under the new law, municipal bodies such as the Presque Isle City Council can conduct meetings outside of the city chamber but must adhere to several rules regulating public access and participation. A body may conduct a public proceeding via telephone, video or in another remote manner as long as a notice is publicized that tells the public how to attend the meeting.

The city of Presque Isle released the agenda of its May 6 meeting on May 1. Near the top of the agenda — in bold — was: “Residents are encouraged to submit comments via email, mail or telephone.”

While the city solicited comments beforehand, there was no way for the public to watch the meeting as it occurred, said City Manager Martin Puckett. He said the Zoom room was intentionally password-protected in order to prevent a “Zoom bomb” like that seen in a Bath City Council meeting last month. 

“Zoombombing” is a term used for an unwanted interruption of a video conference meeting. Interruptions can include loud noises or disturbing material such as pornography or profanity. Such incidents have even resulted in a public warning from the FBI

The city’s first remote council meeting on April 1 was broadcast live on YouTube. But the video from the May 6 meeting was not broadcast live on YouTube or on public access television, as is standard for the city, Puckett said. 

Puckett said the meeting’s format — in which all councilors participated remotely through Zoom — would have been difficult to broadcast over Youtube or television using the city’s conventional methods and equipment for doing so. 

The video was uploaded to YouTube on Saturday, May 9, three days after the meeting took place. Puckett said the large size of the Zoom file delayed the upload to YouTube.

Puckett said that he interpreted the Maine Municipal Association rules governing remote municipal meetings to mean that the public’s comments should be sought beforehand, but that there was no requirement to make it possible for the public to watch the proceedings as they occurred. 

He pointed to a section of the Maine Municipal Association’s “Coronavirus and Board Meetings” guide that says the public “does not have the right” to participate in board or committee meetings under state law.

Although the public may not have a right to be involved in the discussion between elected board members during the meeting, it does under Maine’s Right to Know Law have a right to attend or observe a municipal meeting where the town’s issues are discussed and decisions are made. There is no exception listed for virtual meetings.

The council voted on a few local matters during the May 6 meeting, including a transfer of city funds for asphalt, to approve warrants totaling $1.3 million, to enlist the help of an engineer to study a three-way stop and to reschedule a public hearing on dangerous buildings. It also heard from several state legislators on the recovery from COVID-19.

Other sections of the MMA guide mention the requirement that the public has a way to view the meeting. 

Puckett said that he hopes to hold “regular council meetings” in which the public can attend as soon as possible. Puckett and several Presque Isle city councilors said they hoped to hold next month’s council meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, June 3, in the city council chamber. 

A representative of the Maine Municipal Association did not reply to a request for comment.