The Bollard’s View

"Zen" Ben Meiklejohn: The sharpest legal mind at the Portland School Committee's disposal?

Get a lawyer 

The Portland School Committee should not hold another meeting, public or otherwise, without legal counsel present. At the very least, before the school board convenes again, its members need a crash course in such areas as labor law, Maine’s “Right to Know” law, and basic parliamentary procedure. 

The school board’s current modus operandi – by which members guess and then debate legal issues in public, often goaded by admonitions shouted from the gallery by city government watchdog Steven Scharf — is ridiculous and humiliating for all involved. Plus, it could get very expensive. 

Former board chair Jonathan Radtke alluded to this, when he said after the Nov. 30 fiasco: “As chairman, I feel it’s in the best interest of the Portland public schools that I talk with our legal staff and find out what potential problems we could be facing.” (See “School board meltdown.“)

I’m not saying Superintendent Mary Jo O’Connor is in a mood to sue, or even that she has any standing to do so given the board’s discussion of her pending contract so far. But it’s worth contemplating how high the damages could be were her professional reputation damaged by careless public discussion of closed-door contract talks. Compared to the cost of a day-long legal seminar or some billable hours on Wednesday nights, it seems an even larger sum of public money — not to mention the savings in future fear and loathing on the board. 

This whole sorry mess started with an argument over simple board procedure: whether an order could be amended. Board member Ben Meiklejohn asked to amend the order setting the super’s salary at $111,959, a three-percent raise (Meiklejohn favors a 1.5-percent raise). Then-chair Radtke ruled his motion “out of order,” and was subsequently overruled himself by a 5-4 vote of the board. 

This devolved into a complicated, circular discussion of the legality of the discussion itself, and basically ended in a deadlock caused by one member’s confusion about the rules. 

You’d think, after all that, the board members would do some homework into the legal issues at stake before the next meeting. Or at least read a copy of the rules governing board meetings. 

But at the committee’s Dec. 7 meeting, things fell apart again over basic procedure — in this case, whether the board must vote to go into an executive session (a private meeting) before the public meeting is adjourned, or whether the board first adjourns the public meeting, then goes off to a separate room with no vote at all, as some members say has been past practice. 

Once it was decided a vote to hold the session was needed this time, fresh confusion ensued over how much of a majority was necessary. Incredibly, it seems Meiklejohn was the only board member aware that Maine’s “Right to Know” law requires a three-fifth majority to enter executive session. 

This was followed by more touchy talk around the legality of salary discussions, after which the members abruptly called it a night. (O’Connor, who serves as secretary of the meetings, had already fled the room in disgust. Her departure raised yet another legal question: whether the meeting was legal if the secretary was absent.) 

New chairwoman Ellen Alcorn said she plans to meet with O’Connor and the school department’s lawyers before the Dec. 21 meeting. Dare anyone ask what legal issues surround that private discussion? It’s still not clear whether or why the board must settle O’Connor’s compensation before the end of the calendar year. The Dec. 21 meeting could be the biggest mess yet.

The school board has publicly embarrassed and alienated the superintendent, is sunk is partisan bickering, and is digging itself into an ever-deeper hole — all for lack of basic legal guidance and understanding of board rules. 

City councilors figured out long ago that it helps to have a lawyer and clerk on hand during meetings. If you’ve ever watched a council meeting, you know City Clerk Linda Cohen is the one keeping things on track, not the mayor. And councilors routinely turn to city attorney Gary Wood for legal advice. He’s usually got the answer at hand. If not, the matter is researched and taken up at the next meeting.

The School Committee needs a lawyer on hand, too; especially with another decision about O’Connor’s salary pending, and contact talks with all the school unions in progress this year. While they’re at it, they should also take a minute to read their own rules. Obviously, heeding them is a longer project. 

— Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of 
The Bollard.