The Portland Phoenix

Politics & Other Mistakes: Behind closed doors

In the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, it’s reassuring to remember that some things haven’t changed. The world is still more than adequately supplied with twits, both stupid and selfish.

Let’s start with stupid.

Until recently, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills appeared to be doing a better-than-average job managing the issues caused by the coronavirus. As is often the case in politics, appearances proved deceiving. While Mills was projecting an image of being thoughtful, measured, and – above all – transparent, that was something of a mirage.

The Portland Press Herald discovered that between March 20 and April 15, the governor and her staff held nine secret meetings with legislators to discuss – well, we don’t actually know what they discussed because: secret. They didn’t notify the public about these online and telephone confabs and kept no recordings or records of the proceedings.

When confronted by the newspaper with this blatant violation of state open meetings and public records laws, Mills’ spokeswoman, Lindsay Crete, offered the lamest possible excuse. “The coronavirus has temporarily shifted the way that government business is conducted,” Crete wrote, “but the Administration maintains its commitment to transparency.”

Mills canceled any additional clandestine gatherings – as far as we know – which, as we’ve already discovered, isn’t very far.

The governor’s excuse seems to be that because these little get-togethers were held separately for Democratic and Republican legislators, they were essentially party caucuses, which aren’t covered by right-to-know laws. This is, of course hogwash. The Press Herald’s lawyer, Sigmund Schutz, called it “a deliberate attempt to subvert public access (which was) highly suspect and possibly illegal.”

Before conservatives start calling for Mills’ impeachment, they should take into account that if she’s removed from office, her replacement would be Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson, an intemperate, populist quasi-extremist. Think Bernie Sanders, only with better hair, fewer brains, and less charm.

Suddenly, secret meetings don’t seem so awful.

There is, however, another reason to be concerned about conducting government business out of the public’s sight: It lends credibility to the conspiracy theorists. Erik Arneson, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records, told National Public Radio that when elected officials operate behind the scenes, “it’s just a recipe for suspicion.”

In Maine, the kooks scarcely needed any such encouragement. Even before Mills’ secret meetings were discovered, the extremists, selfishly concerned with advancing their absurd agendas regardless of the health consequences, were already concocting claims that rules imposed by the state were nothing more than left-wing plots to steal their constitutional rights.

GOP state Rep. Larry Lockman of Amherst sent out an email to supporters asserting that Mills’ order for Mainers to stay at home except for essential errands was nothing short of “house arrest” and “martial law lite.” Lockman, who has the medical knowledge of the average pine tree, dismissed COVID-19 as little more than a slightly nastier version of the common flu.

Then there’s Republican state Rep. Chris Johansen of Monticello, who promoted what he called an “illegal” demonstration outside the Blaine House in Augusta on April 20 to protest Mills’ order shutting down non-essential businesses. In announcing the protest, Johansen claimed, without offering any evidence, that the governor had “restricted our free speech, guns, and churches.” He warned that participants might be arrested if they attended, although nobody was.

Instead, according to news reports, about 300 people, mostly without face masks and mostly closer than 6 feet from each other, spent an hour saying a bunch of silly stuff, such as that the coronavirus was a politically motivated attempt to destroy Maine’s economy. Because that makes perfect sense.

It would be a whole lot easier to dismiss the irrational claims and unfounded accusations of Lockman, Johansen, and other fringe elements if Mills and her pals hadn’t been meeting in secret for reasons we still don’t know.

The governor isn’t responsible for this pandemic, but she is responsible for the lack of faith in the government’s response to it. She needs to stop social distancing herself from common sense.

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