I am writing regarding the actions of four members of the Lewiston City Council during our March 15 meeting. Their actions have significant implications for democracy, transparency and public trust.
After an intense five-hour meeting filled with passionate testimony from the community, those councilors introduced an appointment to the city’s Planning Board. This move came as a complete surprise to me, two other city councilors and Mayor Carl Sheline. It happened around 11 pm, after most of the public had left council chambers. (Link: youtube.com/watch?v=ICORqiWghFA&t=16746s.)
This is the same position that had remained vacant after those four councilors blocked the mayor’s appointment last month with no discussion or comments to let people know why. (“Lewiston council blocks mayor’s Planning Board appointment using recent charter change,” March 4).
Similarly, in this case there was no discussion or advance notice to the public or the rest of the council regarding this important matter. We were even refused the name of the appointee or any further information until after the vote on suspending the rules, which is required under parliamentary procedure to consider an item that is not on the agenda. My colleagues and I voted against suspending the rules, but because those four councilors are a majority, it passed.
To say that the rest of us were surprised is an understatement. One of my colleagues remarked, “This just feels really sneaky. . . I’m really disappointed. . . It’s shameful. ” Another said, “We were supposed to serve in good faith with each other. Right now I don’t feel that way. Right now I honestly feel that the four of you are in charge and what does my voice mean to anyone in this community? ”
I was disgusted and dismayed.
Our council rules state that agenda items must be submitted by noon on the Wednesday before a meeting. This is to ensure that councilors have adequate time to research issues before the meeting so they can discuss and vote on them with full understanding. A renewed adherence to this rule was recently insisted upon by one of those four councilors, who cited frustration during his previous term when items were sometimes added to the agenda far past the deadline. The current council was in unanimous agreement that we would respect this deadline.
Other council protocols that were agreed upon at the beginning of our term focused on remaining transparent about city business. These state, in part: Avoid surprises. Communicate often and openly. Share information in advance. Avoid “gotcha” moments.
The fact that four councilors knew about this item ahead of time while the rest of us and the public were left unaware makes me question what they are trying to hide. Even if prior coordination by such a group (which constitutes a quorum of the City Council) turns out not to be technically in violation of public meeting laws, it is a complete violation of the rules and protocols that we agreed to as a council.
Actions like these are what cause distrust in our representative government. Who are these four councilors representing if the public they claim to serve has no chance to know about items that are in the public’s interest to know?
Behavior like this is a violation of trust and a massive insult to the people of Lewiston. Our citizens should be able to count on the city’s business being done transparently and with ample opportunity for their input. They should be able to trust the councilors they voted for to not do things like this behind all of our backs.
This behavior is anti-democratic and an affront to our representative system of government. An appointment to the Planning Board might not seem like a big deal to most folks. How these four councilors went about it should be a wakeup call to all Lewiston citizens to pay close attention to what decisions are made and how our city is being governed.
Scott Harriman represents Ward 3 on the Lewiston City Council.