Like every city, Waterville has secrets. But in most cities, the secrets – sex, drugs, toilet-paper hoarding – are more interesting. Waterville’s secrets are boring because they’re the work of clunkheads.
But even the dullest secrets can have serious implications, particularly when those secrets involve the workings of government.
What follows is a tale of intrigue (but sorta low-grade intrigue), illegality (of the blandest sort), stupidity (because I already said it’s Waterville) and the coronavirus (because these days, everything is about that). In spite of those drawbacks, there are still important lessons to be learned.
Waterville’s secret began in mid-March with a clandestine meeting of a special task force set up by the city manager and headed by Mayor Nick Isgro, an intemperate right-winger with a persecution complex. Isgro and the City Council (the aforementioned clunkheads) authorized this group to deal with COVID-19. According to the Morning Sentinel’s coverage, no public notice was given of the task force’s meetings, and the news media weren’t allowed to attend.
In secret, the group ordered all Waterville restaurants to close immediately, rescinded the ban on plastic single-use bags and banned the public from City Hall.
It’s not that these actions were imprudent. But in a democracy, sweeping changes are generally imposed by officials with clear authority to make such decisions. And if those officials have more brains than a bottle of hand sanitizer, they operate in a transparent manner, so the public will understand the thinking behind their actions.
In this case, however, there doesn’t appear to have been much thinking.
The task force was composed of Isgro, the city’s police and fire chiefs, the city manager, the school superintendent, the president of the chamber of commerce and a majority of the City Council. It’s that last bunch that presents a problem. The state’s Freedom of Access Act requires public notice whenever enough elected officials with authority to take actions gather together. Also, the meetings are supposed to be open to the public.
Once Waterville’s attorney, William A. Lee III, got wind of this stuff, he issued memos pointing out the task force was operating illegally. “The modification of a city ordinance can only be accomplished by a vote of the city council,” Lee wrote, “not by a committee meeting behind closed doors.”
On March 20, councilors got together (legally, for a change) to modify the task force’s membership by removing one councilor and designating the group as an information-gathering subcommittee. That meant it could still meet in secret, but it couldn’t issue any edicts. The closed-door meetings were necessary, according to quotes in the Sentinel from Council President Eric Thomas, so that its members could speak “freely and honestly” without having to “worry about everything coming out of their mouths being quoted in the newspaper.”
Isgro did his best Donald Trump imitation in opposing public meetings: “Since the press has a taste for salacious headlines,” he said, “it’s really not a priority for me.”
Isgro then offered up his own material suitable for salacious headlines by saying, “I’d rather be called a fool down the road and be embarrassed than have half my community dead because I didn’t take (the pandemic) seriously.”
If the mayor intended that statement as a scare tactic, it’s a good one, although not exactly in the way he intended. It’s doubtful that anywhere close to half of Waterville’s residents would expire from the coronavirus even if the city took no action. But there’s no doubt that allowing a coterie of unauthorized autocrats to make their own laws wouldn’t be healthy for a free society.
On March 26, the council and Isgro finally yielded to public pressure and abolished their secret society, instead giving the city manager temporary authority to make emergency decisions.
In these perilous times, we may be tempted to bend the rules to deal with health threats. But allowing the government to function in secret can only lead to a loss of fundamental liberties.
And if our leaders don’t dare to speak “freely and honestly” in public, they shouldn’t be speaking – or leading – at all.
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