Why state government business shouldn’t all be conducted in the open

There was a question of access in Maine politics this week, both public and educational.

With stories and editorials abounding in Maine’s news media, you might understandably think Gov. Paul LePage’s closed door Blaine House meeting was an aberration in Augusta. You would be wrong.

The door at the back of the Appropriations Committee chamber in the State House in Augusta. Naomi Schalit | Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

The door at the back of the Appropriations Committee chamber in the State House in Augusta. Naomi Schalit | Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

Most of the real work in the Legislature occurs behind closed doors. Anyone who has seen the process watches as committee members — especially those on the Appropriations Committee — go back into their offices to synchronize party positions on pending issues, or enter into “chairs and leads” meetings where the real negotiations take place.

They all come forward afterward to go “on mic” and tell the world what they have decided. Then, when the Legislature as a whole is meeting, party caucuses go into private meetings and discuss the matters of the day. For example, the House Democrats will meet in one of the large rooms in the State House to discuss caucus positions on bills to be voted on.

Think about that. The majority of a legislative body closes the doors — no press, no public — to decide how they should vote. Nothing in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act authorizes this. Nor do the Maine Constitution or Legislative Rules.

So while House Speaker Mark Eves may want sanctions against the governor for closing his inaugural committee meeting, it is almost certain nothing actionable occurred there. Meanwhile, the myriad closed door meetings in the Legislature result in actual horse-trading and deal-making. If we are going to be firm on public access requirements, the Legislature should be subject to the same scrutiny.

Of course, Eves could come forward and admit that sometimes the doors need to be closed; many, myself included, would agree. It is hard to have a fruitful negotiation when paid advocates — whether the Maine People’s Alliance or any of the countless other groups — are constantly shouting that any deviation from their preferred position will result in primary challenges, rallies, protests, or lack of support. In a perverse way, the ideal of transparency can increase partisanship.

That partisanship should not take hold, especially on matters of education. Bill Beardsley offered a common sentiment — neither Republican or Democrat — stating the achievement gap between the wealthiest communities in our state and the poorest is a significant problem which needs to be addressed. One solution might be offering students and parents more educational choices. How? Sometimes you can start by changing a school’s name.

One of the other stories this week concerned Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. As part of their disaffiliation with the Sisters of Mercy, they have been asked to find a new name. With their new letterhead, signs, and uniforms may also come new students.

In some ways, Maine has a proud educational history. The legacy of town academies – Maine Central Institute, Thornton, Foxcroft — and enshrinement of schools in our Constitution are things which help set us apart. However, the black-mark of anti-Catholic bigotry still infects our laws.

For those towns which are too small to maintain schools and have decided not to participate in the school consolidation scheme, Maine law requires the town to pay a set amount of tuition at public or private schools of the family’s choice. But families are not free to choose faith-based schools, a legacy of James Blaine and the anti-Catholic sentiment of the 1800s.

When the school-to-formerly-be-known-as-Catherine McAuley loses its name and religious affiliation, young women from Raymond can choose attend it, or Wayneflete, or North Yarmouth Academy. If they would rather attend Cheverus or St. Dominic’s, they are out of luck, all because of their faith.

So, as legislators talk about the governor limiting public access to committee meetings, they should recognize they often do the exact same thing on matters which become law. And, as the committee continues to do its work, removing the bigotry of our past would be a good step forward in our educational system. Access to a good school should not be limited by either income or faith.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.