Editor Urges Towns To Follow Open Meeting Laws

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(Host) The editor of the Bennington Banner wants town boards to limit their use of closed meetings – and he’s urging voters to make sure Vermont’s Open Meeting law is followed.

But the idea hasn’t been well received in most towns where it’s been proposed.

VPRs Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Banner Editor Jim Therrien says the referendum’s goal was not to point fingers at particular boards. He wanted to get people thinking about the value of holding public meetings in the open.

The idea was sparked by a panel discussion on law at a recent Vermont Press Association dinner.

Therrien says a number of reporters were concerned about how often some boards go into executive session, closing out the public.

(Therrien) "I think that the problem that we find the most is a routine use of it – almost at every meeting and you have to question is that really necessary. And we were thinking of some way to maybe inform the public a little bit more about it, what’s acceptable and what’s not. And we came up with the idea of putting it on the ballot of several towns."

(Keese) The open meeting law lists specific reasons for excluding the public: contracts, some litigation, grievances and labor negotiations, employee dismissals or evaluations, and some real estate issues.

The law requires boards to state the reason for closing a meeting, and to vote in the open meeting whether to go into executive session. Boards are prohibited from discussing anything behind closed doors except what they said would be the topic.

Therrien asked five boards in three Bennington County towns to put the closed meeting referendum on their town meeting day ballots.

All but one, the Shaftsbury Select Board, said no. Therrien:

(Therrien) "Some of the comments were that they do follow the law and they saw no reason to put the question on there and that it served no purpose. And then I noticed there was a little bit of resentment that the questions was asked." 

(Keese) Bennington’s Select Board didn’t like the idea. Lodie Colvin chairs the board.

(Colvin) "We also felt it almost said, we must not be doing this right if we want the voters to tell us how to do it."

(Keese) Colvin says the board works hard to strictly follow all provisions of the Open Meeting Law.

(Colvin) "So we felt it was totally unnecessary, we are doing what we need to do.  There are some things you simply have to discuss quietly to protect the interests of people or in some cases the taxpayers when it’s a legal issue."

(Keese) Allen Gilbert is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. He welcomes discussion of the law.

But he’d like to see more.

(Gilbert) "Maybe a followup to Jim Therrien’s suggestion would be for citizens or the newspaper would be to do audits of how much time their boards spend in executive session and whether they’re following all the steps that are needed to go into executive session legally."

(Keese) Gilbert says that could be done by checking the minutes of public meetings.

He says another problem with the law is that it has no teeth. Citizens can sue if they think it’s being violated. But legal action is expensive, and monetary penalties are almost never enforced.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.


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