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City Council Rules Changes Proposed and Debated

At its May 5 meeting, the City Council discussed proposed changes to its Rules and Order of Business, which governs procedures at meetings, appointments to committees, Councilor communications, and other items. The document was last updated in January. The proposed changes include:

  • Section 2: Moving the adjournment time up from 10:00 p.m. to 9:30. The 10:00 time was set when meetings began at 7:00, but now they start at 6:00. Councilor Jonathan Martell suggested that 9:00 p.m. would be preferable. “After the three hour mark, it gets difficult to make good progress,” he said, noting that the Council often has executive sessions scheduled before the regular meetings start. Other Councilors agreed. Meetings can be extended past the deadline with a unanimous vote to do so.
  • Section 6 states that Council workshops, as well as regular meetings, will incorporate a video telephony platform (e.g. Zoom) for public participation. This was amended in January and no new change is being proposed. Councilor Ayn Hanselmann questioned whether the technology was available to have this in the conference room, where workshops were held pre-Covid, or if this requirement means that workshops will need to be held in Council chambers. Mayor Mastraccio said that once meetings are held in-person again, she wants workshops to be held in chambers where there is room for the public to attend, but if the chamber was unavailable for some reason, Zoom access from the conference room would be provided.
  • Section 33: Emails & Other Electronic Communication has several proposed changes. In the first paragraph, “At no time should City Councilors participate in e-mail, social media, text messages and other electronic communication debates on policy issues, said debates should only occur at meetings posted in accordance with Maine State Law and/or the Freedom of Access Law,” the phrase “among themselves” would be inserted. Mayor Mastraccio said this would make it clear that Councilors can still discuss and clarify information with constituents. Councilor Bob Stackpole said this became an issue when he was on the School Committee several years ago. He recalled that on Sunday nights, Committee members would talk on the phone and discuss the agenda for Monday’s meeting. “We decided that the public’s business is done in public…if common sense tells you that this is the public’s business, then you probably shouldn’t be emailing or texting other Councilors.”
  • Further down in Section 33, the paragraphs regarding use of disclaimers on social media sites have extensive proposed revisions, which boil down to this: If elected officials comment on a City-owned social media site, they must (not should) make it clear that the comment is made as an individual Councilor, and not on behalf of the City or Council. If an elected official comments on a non-City owned site (including a personal page), there must be a disclaimer on the site, or in a preceding statement, that the views expressed are their personal opinion, and not made as a Councilor or on behalf of the Council. Councilor Hanselmann suggested adding a clarification that this rule would only pertain to comments about city business. There was lengthy discussion about whether that should be clarified even further to include only matters pending before the Council or likely to come up soon. Councilor Lanigan said there is no practical way to use disclaimers, given the structure of Facebook and Twitter posts. City Manager Steven Buck called the entire paragraph about non-City-owned sites a “rabbit hole,” which may impinge on Councilors’ free speech rights. No consensus was reached.
  • The following sentence is also proposed to be added to Section 33:  “Dispute or determination of the extent of protected free speech, including political speech, as permitted by law, shall be open for review by the Council but if contested shall be ruled upon by City legal counsel.” Councilor Martell said he was not happy with legal counsel being the final say on disputes. Mr. Buck replied that court rulings and interpretations on free speech issues are extensive and ever-evolving, necessitating legal expertise.
  • In Section 41, regarding Committees, the following additional sentence is proposed: “The Mayor may remove or re-designate” a Councilor from a subcommittee “after full discussion by the City Council for conflicts real or perceived, violations of Council Rules of Procedure or Conduct, or at the request of the majority of the City Council.” The Mayor has always had this right, but the requirement for a full discussion by the Council is new. Councilor Lanigan agreed that the new language is an improvement. “This will slow down the process and avoid a rash decision being made,” he said.

The Council didn’t take any votes on the changes, but will revisit them again at a future meeting after further revision by the City’s attorney. A review of the Council’s Code of Conduct is also planned. The Council will do a self-evaluation later this year and have a workshop on boardsmanship as well.

The full text of the Rules and Order of Business, with proposed changes in red, can be viewed in the City Council’s meeting packet here, beginning on page 134.

The full City Council meeting video can be viewed here.

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