From the editor: No surprises in complaint rejection, but hope for transparency lives on

By Cynthia Prairie
©2015-Telegraph Publishing LLC

Two weeks ago, the Chester Select Board unanimously adopted a motion from a letter by town attorney Jim Carroll as a reply to The Chester Telegraph’s complaint that it had held an illegal executive session back in November.

The Chester Telegraph claimed that the Nov. 19 executive session was illegal because:

  1. the reason cited before the meeting – to negotiate a real estate purchase  – was not the real reason they closed the doors to their meeting, and
  2. the reason cited after-the-fact is not a legal exemption. (Members had said the session was to discuss the “idea” of the purchase, “the initial concept was put out.” “We discussed the purchase agreement. The nature of it.” )

It came as no surprise that this Select Board would reject our complaint. However, given the board’s distaste for “sending dollars out of town” even for valuable services, it did come as quite a surprise that it was willing to pay the town’s Middlebury-based attorney for his travel and public consultation time for a matter that was more cut and dried than they – even now – want to admit. But then again, we’ve all been known to spend good money for a good show.

You can read Carroll’s letter in response to our complaint here

This is the third time The Chester Telegraph and Chester Town government — through attorney Carroll — have wrestled over the public’s right to know. The first was in the summer of 2012, several months after we began publication. Over the course of a few weeks, we requested information that — by statute and in case law — was public.  Attorney Carroll, on behalf of the town, first said that the information wasn’t public, then that the cost of providing it would be high. Finally, when all the arguments against failed, the information spigot was turned on and became what readers know as the Chester Police Log. See this month’s Police Log here.

The second time involved investigative reports into conduct by former Chester Police officer Paul Larochelle. We requested the same documents from both the State Attorney General’s office and from the Town of Chester. The Attorney General’s office complied with our request within two weeks, redacting the names of children and other witnesses as expected. The Town of Chester at first refused the request, then refused the appeal of the request and finally produced the public documents.

Unlike those provided by the Attorney General, the documents provided by the Town of Chester were severely redacted.  In addition to proper redactions, the information blacked out included the names of Chester’s Police chief, an Assistant Attorney General handling the case (even though his signature was visible)  and the Vermont State Police and DCF investigators.  Even the name of the town’s elementary school was blacked out. Just for the record, it’s Chester-Andover Elementary School. The redactions — which were made on taxpayer’s time — were so extensive as to appear spiteful.

Of course, Carroll wasn’t acting on his own. His client is the same Select Board that believed that initial discussions of buying 139 acres for $399,000 were best done in private.

Thus the upshot of Carroll’s visit and the Select Board’s remarks during the January meeting was to justify the board’s actions and put its members in the best possible light. This was done by making Vermont’s Open Meeting Law seems burdensome, opaque and in need of Vermont Supreme Court tests while portraying the board as well-meaning locals who couldn’t possibly understand a statute so diabolically complex. (Expect the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to return to Montpelier this legislative session to attempt to water down the law.)

The fact is that Vermont’s Open Meeting Law is short (a mere five pages), simple, direct and clear with plenty of room for public bodies to correct errors made in good faith. It should never need to be tested by the Supreme Court if local bodies really try to adhere to it and always err on the side of openness.

While attorney Carroll rejected the idea of adopting a few policies to govern the way the Select Board goes into closed door meetings, there are still a few hopeful signs that things may be changing in Chester. The agenda for the Jan. 21 and Feb. 4 Select Board meetings are more detailed than previous ones. And in the January meeting, the board went into executive session with an almost proper motion. Even more astounding, that session only lasted just 28 minutes instead of the two hours plus that they have taken.

So yes, there is reason for hope. And of course, we’ll be watching.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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