AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee thumbed their noses at Maine’s open-meeting law Thursday, taking their deliberations behind locked doors after being challenged by the Sun Journal on the matter.

The committee was meeting to debate proposed Department of Health and Human Services rule changes that could result in the loss of millions of dollars to agencies that provide services to children on the autism spectrum or who live with other developmental disabilities.

After discussing the issue in public before a standing-room-only crowd, Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the Senate chairman of the committee, called for a “corner caucus” and recessed the committee.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the House chairman of the committee, did not object to taking the committee’s business behind closed doors.

Brakey first said he had no comment as to why he was allowing the committee to go behind closed doors but later said he was unfamiliar with the state law that requires lawmakers to conduct their business in public. He asked a Sun Journal editor to send him a copy of the Maine Freedom of Access Act.

When challenged about the nature of their secret meetings, the two groups — divided by party and meeting in separate rooms — invited a reporter to attend but did not invite dozens of other members of the public who were left sitting in the public meeting room.

Asked why they didn’t hold their deliberations in public and told two reporters would be needed to cover the split committee in private meetings, Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, responded, “You’re gonna have to tell your company to get two f—-ing reporters.”

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said the Sun Journal’s protest over the closed-door meeting was “taking up time that we really can’t afford.”

But within three minutes, both groups of lawmakers returned to the public meeting space to continue their deliberations.

Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, outlined her view on the situation, noting, “It’s nothing any different than what we discussed in the other room.”

Brakey also emphasized he was going to say in public “my exact words that were said in the other room.”

Sen. Earle McCormick, R-West Gardiner, defended the closed-door sessions, saying secrecy was allowed under the Legislature’s joint rules.

“Appropriations does it all the time,” McCormick said, referring to the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which crafts the state’s budget.

The closed-door meetings Thursday, while brief, were among dozens that reporters in the State House press corps have witnessed since the Legislature began its work in 2016.

Reporters from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News say they have interrupted closed-door meetings since the start of the session, or have repeatedly reminded lawmakers of Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which requires elected officials, including the Legislature, to conduct the public’s business in public.

To facilitate public access, all of the meeting rooms of the Legislature’s various joint standing committees are equipped with public seating areas, as well as microphones that are used to record the proceedings and broadcast them live on the Legislature’s public website.

Still, lawmakers frequently choose to “go off mic” and move into the corners of the committee rooms beyond the earshot of the audience and news media, or straight into back rooms that are blocked by locked doors only accessible by lawmakers or legislative staff.

The state’s open meetings law reads, in part, “The term ‘public proceedings’ as used in this subchapter means the transactions of any functions affecting any or all citizens of the State.”

The law also spells out that it applies to legislative committees and subcommittees that include three or more members of the same committee appointed to do the committee’s work.

Following the meeting, Brakey said he would take the time to review the law and change his practices going forward, if he deemed it was warranted.

Lawmakers participating in the closed-door sessions Thursday included: Brakey; Gattine; Haskell; Malaby; Sanderson; McCormick; Rep. Christine Burstein, D-Lincolnville; Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York; Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland; Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland; Rep. Frances Head, R-Bethel; and Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough.

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.