On March 27, 2015

Transparency in governing at risk if changes to public meeting laws are approved

By Angelo Lynn

Open meeting laws are part of state statute to insure citizens are kept abreast of what government is doing. That’s as much true in state government as it is for school boards, town selectboards, zoning and planning commissions, or numerous other committees and subcommittees formed to carry out the important work of government.

In taking on those tasks, the inherent understanding is that the work is to be done openly and within full access of public transparency and participation.

Why is it then that the Vermont League of Cities and Towns is actively working to weaken the very laws that promote government transparency?

That work is demonstrated in a bill brought before the Senate Government Operations Committee last week. S.114 would allow two unnecessary and detrimental changes to current law: 1) It would delay the number of days government bodies have to post minutes, agendas and other documents of meetings from five days to 10; and 2) It would ban penalties against some public bodies even if those members knowingly violate the law.

The VLCT wants to delay electronically posting meeting minutes and other documents to provide government staff more time to carry out what it posits is a difficult and time-consuming task. That’s nonsense. Posting material online in today’s office environment, even in the state’s smallest communities, is second nature to staff, or at least it should be. Town and state officials are not, as the League seems to represent, computer illiterate and incapable of today’s simplest online tasks.

More importantly, if the League is concerned its members cannot master such simple tasks in a timely manner, perhaps they should spend their efforts providing appropriate training. Town taxpayers, after all, are the ones who pay the town and city dues to the League and taxpayers should hope that the League’s value to towns is focused on training and help through sharing best practices, rather than lobbying Legislators to weaken laws that hamper transparency.

It is equally misguided to suggest some government bodies should be exempt from penalties if they violate current open meeting or public access laws. The League’s suggestion is to exempt all municipal bodies except “higher tiered” bodies, such as school boards, selectboards, and zoning and planning commissions. But that provides towns and cities the ability to skirt open government on many important issues by creating committees to handle much of the work.

In testimony to the Senate Government Operations Committee last week, Tom Kearny, editor of the Stowe Reporter, noted that the Burlington City Council had the following standing committees: Board of Finance; Charter Change; Community Development & Neighborhood Revitalization; Institutions/Human Resources; License; Ordinance; Parks, Arts, Culture; Public Safety; Transportation/Energy/Utilities; and Tax Abatement. As committees, under S.114, they would be exempt from any fine for knowingly and willfully violating the open meeting law, and would also be exempt from having to pay legal fees for litigation in which the plaintiff substantially prevails. The law still requires these public institutions to correct their misdeeds, but under no penalty or consequence.

If Burlington can designate such committees to do the important work of communities, so could any town or school board when sensitive issues arise.

The Senate Government Operations Committee rejected much of the League’s arguments last week and the bill missed cross-over (the point where bills go from the Senate to the House), but the League is now positioned to ask the Senate Rules Committee this Wednesday to suspend the rules and allow the bill to be taken up in the House.

Why give the VLCT special treatment? Does this lobbying organization have special privileges that other lobbying groups do not, and is that appropriate when the intent of the effort is to set back the important reforms to the open meeting laws that were made in the prior year?

We argue it is neither appropriate to suspend the rules in this matter, nor is it advisable for the Legislature to weaken the laws that provide for better public knowledge and participation in our civil affairs. The effort by the Legislature — and the League and our cities and towns — should be to strengthen measures that improve transparency, not weaken them.

Angelo S. Lynn is the editor & publisher of the Addison Independent in Middlebury, a sister paper of The Mountain Times.

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