State News

Local officials told: When in doubt, err on the side of transparency

By Alan Keays, VTDigger

A lawyer for an organization that represents municipalities in Vermont told officials at the local level Thursday that when it comes to the state’s open meeting law it’s best to err on the side of openness.

“The main goal here is accountability and transparency,” Carl Andeer, a staff attorney with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, told a roomful of about 50 people, including Select Board members, planning commissioners, town managers and police chiefs.
He added, “If there’s a kind of situation where it’s 50/50 and you’re not sure the law is going to apply, be cautious.”

Andeer spoke during a workshop called Open Meeting Law and Social Media as part of the VLCT’s annual Town Fair at the Killington Grand Resort Hotel.

More than 300 officials from cities and towns across Vermont attended the event. In addition to workshops, the organization held its annual meeting and celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Workshops covered such topics as computer security and managing conflicts of interest. There was also a session on welcoming newcomers to town, put on by members of Rutland Young Professionals.

Karen Horn, the VLCT’s director of public policy and advocacy, said the organization receives questions regularly from local officials on the open meeting law, from the proper warning of meetings to what constitutes a public body.

“It comes up all the time,” she said. “It’s a lot about the mechanics of it.”

Andeer, in his workshop, provided an overview of the state’s open meeting law and talked about some things that weren’t specifically addressed.

The law was crafted before the advent of smartphones and social media, such as Facebook, he said. That means trying to apply the “ideas and the purpose” of the law to such forms of communication as texting and Twitter, according to the attorney.

“The law might not specifically address situations with social media and using electronic communications,” Andeer said, “but we can look at court cases.”

A single posting on Facebook or Twitter by one Select Board member would not be a violation, he said, but it’s a different matter when a quorum of that board joins in that online discussion about something over which the board has authority.

“That’s where the problem comes in,” the VLCT lawyer said. “It’s still not entirely clear, but this is a situation that we would say definitely avoid because you’re having a quorum here and you’re talking about the business of that body.”

He also advised local leaders against using a private email account for town business.

“The question right now that hasn’t been decided yet by the [Vermont] Supreme Court is whether a record is a public record if it’s in a private account,” he said.

Such a case is pending before the state’s highest court.

He urged local officials either to use an email account set up by the municipality or to create a separate email account strictly for town business.

Andeer was asked several questions dealing with when a public body needs to warn a meeting. One hypothetical scenario involved what happens when one Select Board member asks the other board members to get together for a social gathering.

“If you’re not talking about the business of the body, that’s not going to be a violation,” the attorney said.

However, what happens if town business does come up involving a quorum of board members at that social gathering? he was asked. Andeer advised disclosing that discussion at the next meeting of that body. “At that point you are airing it out in public and there’s a record of it,” he said.

One person wanted to know whether the open meeting law applies to a town dog park committee getting together to talk about fundraising.

“To be on the safe side,” Andeer said, “warn it as a public meeting.”

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