The Portland Press Herald does not have the right to notes from a Portland School Committee executive meeting that discussed financial matters, the Main Supreme Court ruled on April 24.
In its unanimous ruling, the court also stated that the public was legitimately excluded from the 45-minute meeting that took place last summer.
The decision stemmed from a lawsuit the Blethen Main Newspapers, owner of the Press Herald, brought against the committee, alleging it had violated the state’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) when it was denied notes from a July 25 executive session. In the meeting, the school’s top employees discussed staff duties and responsibilities that could have led to the $2.5 million budget deficit, which the school was facing at the time.
The Press Herald claimed that the FOAA clearly states budget issues must be discussed in public meetings, but the high court disagreed, stating that the budget concerns weren’t the main point of discussion in the meeting.
“Although the [state’s open meetings law] is to be interpreted liberally to favor open meetings, construing the language of [the statute] as prohibiting any discussion of mattes dealing with school finances in an executive session would lead to the absurd result that there never could be a discussion in executive session about personnel whose responsibilities are fiscal or monetary, or whose jobs impact a budget in any way,” wrote Judge Robert Clifford for the court.
Sigmund Schutz, the attorney who represented the Press Herald, said this case has unnecessarily tipped the balance in favor of keeping secret personnel matters above the public’s right to know.
“It’s unfortunate whenever a court finds a decision in favor of the public’s right to know an ‘absurd’ result,” Schutz said. “And to me, that’s the crux of the decision. The court didn’t feel that there should be a greater emphasis on the public’s right to know, and I think that’s contrary to what the legislation intended.”
Schutz noted that in between the lower court’s ruling in favor of the newspaper and the committee’s appeal to the highest court, the school released a comprehensive report that disclosed everything the newspaper was seeking in the lawsuit.
“Everything the public could have possibly wanted to know has voluntarily been made public by the school committee already,” Schutz said. “So, it’s troubling whenever a court goes out of its way to rule that giving the public a right to know is an absurd result."