Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos brought his far-reaching transparency tour to Milton’s Selectboard last Monday night.
The former city councilman and senator spoke for 45 minutes on Vermont’s open meeting law on May 5, answering questions from board and audience members along the way. This was his 30th stop since being elected in 2011.
Vermont’s open meeting law ensures the public has direct access to a government’s decisions.
“It’s important for people to know, because as our constitution says, we’ve servants of the people,” Condos said afterward.
Condos and Deputy Secretary Brian Leven came to Milton on Town Manager Brian Palaia and House Minority Leader Don Turner’s invitation. He gave an overview of the definitions of public bodies and quorums and the differences between a regular, special and emergency meeting.
Selectman John Bartlett asked about a rhetorical situation in which three of five selectboard members – a quorum – are dining out and are approached by a citizen with questions about town business: Should they answer, or is that considered a meeting? Bartlett wondered.
Condos suggested to be safe, one board member should leave and speak to the resident or suggest he or she come to the next regular meeting.
“Sometimes it’s difficult, because you’ll be put in a position,” Condos said, “but you have to follow the law.”
But the law isn’t static. A week after Condos’ presentation, which was based on current statute, both legislative bodies approved changes to the open meeting law, including how technology like email fits into the picture.
Condos said generally, electronic conversations between board members could be considered a violation since the public has a right to know and participate.
The new bill, however, allows an electronic meeting so long as it’s publicly announced to the media or any person who requested notice of special meetings. The board must provide means for public access online, a legal briefing from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns says.
One attendee asked about using Google Drive, a system for sharing documents, between board members. Here, Condos repeated his refrain for the evening: “I’d be real careful about that,” he said, saying it could be OK if the public has access, too.
Leven noted the bill also determined that organizing an agenda over email does not constitute an open meeting.
The Vermont Press Association, which represents more than 60 Vermont newspapers, came out against these changes, arguing that by agreeing ahead of time on the agenda, board members essentially control substantive portions of a meeting without public scrutiny.
The VPA, headed by veteran reporter Mike Donoghue of the Burlington Free Press, also pushed for boards to take minutes during executive session to be released once those confidential items are resolved and for greater penalties for violating open meeting practices. The fine has been $500 since the law was instituted more than 30 years ago.
Condos’ presentation touched on the nine conditions for entering executive session and clarified that only real estate purchases can be voted in private; everything else must be done when the board reconvenes in open session, he said.
The selectboard immediately put one of Condos’ suggestions to practice: Bartlett asked if the board should return to the community room after closed session, or if it was OK to stay in the town manager’s office. Condos said during his time on South Burlington’s City Council, someone checked if any citizens were still present; if so, they’d return to the regular meeting space.
Indeed, after meeting briefly about personnel, Milton’s board came back to the warned location to close the meeting.
Condos’ full presentation also covers Vermont’s public records law, but he abbreviated that part of the talk last Monday. Asked to rate the law based on its numerous exemptions, Condos acknowledged there are too many, but it’s up to the legislature to change that.
Though Condos advises lawmakers on bills, he sees his primary role to help citizens, officials, attorneys and the press understand current statute, in laymen’s terms.
“When you’re in a government position, you always have to be thinking, following the process … [that] you understand who the boss is, and the boss is the public,” he said.
Disclosure: Editor/reporter Courtney Lamdin serves as the Northwestern Vermont representative on the Vermont Press Association Board of Directors. Read more about the VPA’s opposition to the bill and its plans to ask Gov. Peter Shumlin for a veto in an op-ed by VPA lobbyist Joe Choquette here.