The public comment microphone facing the council chambers in Portland's City Hall. The City Council held an executive session on Feb. 27 about a vague
The public comment microphone facing the council chambers in Portland's City Hall. The City Council held an executive session on Feb. 27 about a vague "First Amendment issue" that was interrupted by several antagonistic commenters calling in via Zoom. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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The Portland City Council’s executive session Monday night was interrupted by several individuals who “Zoom-bombed” the meeting, making hateful and trollish comments under aliases like “Mainer” and “Concerned American.”

Those antagonizing the council meeting did not give their full names or where they lived, which the council typically requires for public comments. The calls came during the vote to adjourn the meeting and enter into executive session.

The executive session was a closed-door meeting with the city’s attorney that came at the conclusion of a regular council meeting. It was listed on the city agenda as concerning the “legal rights and duties concerning the First Amendment.” 

Pressed by the Phoenix for more information about the need for the meeting, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said that it had to do with First Amendment matters including “email and other communications.” The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, among other things, protects freedom of speech, the press, and assembly.

Mayor Kate Snyder did not respond to questions from the Phoenix asking about the executive session.

Portland lawyer Sigmund Shutz, a member of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said that the city’s explanation on the agenda was vague, but the city’s ability to discuss legal rights and duties with their attorney is “somewhat broad.”

“A hot issue around the State has been ‘First Amendment audits’,” Shultz said via email. “The First Amendment covers a fair bit of territory. They certainly could be more precise without giving [away] the game vis-a-vis any confidential or sensitive legal advice they intend to solicit.”

A First Amendment audit is an event “designed to test municipal officials and employees in their understanding of citizens’ rights in public buildings,” according to the law firm Bernstein Shur.

Judy Meyer, the executive editor of the Lewiston Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Western Maine weekly newspapers owned by the Sun Media Group, and an expert on freedom of information laws, said the Council was permitted to go into executive session to discuss their rights and duties only if they had their attorney. Acting Corporation Counsel Michael Goldman was present at the meeting — though someone from the corporation counsel’s office always attends council meetings.

“They cannot just go into executive session to discuss rights and responsibilities amongst themselves,” Meyer said. “They have to be consulting with an attorney. No lawyer, no executive session.”

The city cited state statute section 405(6)(E), which describes the permitted reasons for the closed-door sessions. Among these are  “consultation between a governmental body and its attorney about legal rights, pending or contemplated litigation or settlement offers “where the duties of the public body’s or agency’s counsel to the attorney’s client pursuant to the code of professional responsibility clearly conflict with this subchapter or where premature general public knowledge would clearly place the State, municipality or other public agency or person at a substantial disadvantage.”

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