Chester Telegraph claims TRSU board violated state Open Meeting Law

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In a complaint dated May 7 and sent to Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Meg Powden and board members, Cynthia Prairie, editor and publisher of The Chester Telegraph, is contending that the board of the SU improperly entered into an executive session even after it was warned that it was doing so illegally.

The Two Rivers Supervisory Union Board meeting on May 2, 2019. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

Vermont’s Open Meeting Law allows “public bodies” like select boards and school boards to meet in private but only under specific circumstances. To hold a closed door session without the public, the board has to show that one of the exemptions to the law fits its situation. (See Page 3, When Can A Board Meet In Private?) There is no exemption for discussions that may be controversial, uncomfortable or embarrassing.

To hold an executive session under one of the six exemptions that protect contractual negotiations and legal matters, the board has to first consider the topic at hand and decide that discussing it in public would put the board at a disadvantage in its negotiations or legal situation. The law calls that decision a “specific finding.” After that, the board can vote to meet in executive session.

Most of board did not know reason for exec session

Item 8 on the agenda for the May 2 meeting of the TRSU board was listed as an executive session to be held for “labor relations.”

Board member Mary Alberty moved to go into executive session when Powden read aloud from the law that says the board had made a “specific finding” that public knowledge of their discussion would put them at a disadvantage. Such language is used for issues like contract and real estate negotiations where showing your hand eliminates your bargaining position.

Since Alberty was making the motion, she quickly replied “what Meg said,” as a signal she was including it in her motion.

But the exemption that was used actually states “labor relations agreements with employees” not just “labor relations.” And the board said it had made that “specific finding” without discussing it and without knowing what it contained.

On the first point, The Telegraph asked board chair Paul Ozechowski which labor agreement the board was referring to.

Powden reads from a statement concerning The Telegraph’s Open Meeting violation complaint in January 2018.

“It’s cited properly, Shawn, and I don’t think we’re obligated to give you any further information,” replied Powden speaking for the chair.

The Telegraph pointed to the full wording and asserted that if the session was not about an agreement, it would not fall under the exemption.

At that point, The Telegraph asked if any of the six-member board knew what the session would be about.

When asked individually during the meeting, five of the members – including Alberty who made the motions – acknowledged that they did not know what topic would be discussed. Board members Joe Fromberger and Alberty actually said they did not know what was to be discussed, while Dan Buckley, Fred Marin and Kate Lamphere shook their heads signifying the same. Orzechowski at first said he did not know but reversed course when Powden said he actually did know.

On Friday, The Telegraph asked Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters if a board could reach the “specific finding” described in law without knowing what they were talking about.

“Such a finding requires a weighing of specific facts and circumstances that is impossible if you don’t know what you are voting on,” Winters responded by email. “The finding must relate to one of the six categories set forth in subsections (A)-(F). Again, this would be impossible to do without know what you are voting on.”

Another law says that every year, the superintendent and chairs of all the boards in the SU must attend at least eight hours of training together on a variety of subjects, but one that is specifically named in the statute is the Open Meeting Law.

In January 2018, The Telegraph complained about an executive session in which the board’s discussion was kept secret because it related to “personnel.” While there is an exemption for the hiring, evaluation, discipline and dismissal of an employee, The Telegraph found that the closed door session was to discuss a “reduction in force” or layoffs. The Finance Committee also held an executive session for “labor relations with employees.”

When called out on these sessions, Powden read a letter written with the SU’s lawyer Chris Leopold that called the violation not “intentional” and said in part: “This complaint does highlight the need for us to improve … being more descriptive as to why the Board is entering into Executive Session.

‘…the public’s right to know is too important to put even the most mundane of matters on
cruise control.’

Chris Winters
Deputy Secretary of State

In its May 7 complaint, which you can read here, The Telegraph says that its reporter cautioned board members that they would be entering into an questionable executive session. But rather than postpone the closed door portion of the meeting, the board went forward with the executive session for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, exposing them to the legal liability of the statute that says that any member of any board that “knowingly and intentionally” prevents the public from attending a portion of a meeting, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined up to $500.

That was something that Winters cautioned against in his email on Friday. “As a former school board member and chair myself, I completely understand the instinct to trust the superintendent or the board chair and not question his or her judgment on open meeting law,” wrote Winters, while also praising the work of volunteer board members.

“However, the public’s right to know is too important to put even the most mundane of matters on cruise control – we must remain constantly vigilant on behalf of the public and err on the side of openness to preserve accountability and trust in government,” he wrote.

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  1. Robert Nied says:

    If a Public Body exceeds the parameters for Executive Session defined in the Open Meetings Law or is unaware of those parameters it is critical that they be made aware. It is the obligation of both citizens and the free press to point out transgressions that diminish transparency. Kudos to the Telegraph for diligence in monitoring and reporting and encouragement to the Board to do better going forward.

  2. It took a lot of brass to post this article. It must have been tough to know some people would not understand what our job as journalists is.

    Those people need to read The Elements Of Journalism; What newspapers should and know and what the public should expect.

    I am saddened this happened because I like Powden and it isn’t right for the readership to have a scapegoat. It takes more than one to pull off a stonewall against the press.

    It would be great if Powden would clarify why this happened. it seems like a simple but big miscommunication that needed to be reported on.

    A real journalist:
    ‘comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable’
    -Finley Peter Dunne

    ‘Objective journalism is one of the main reasons that American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.’
    -Hunter S. Thompson

  3. Michelle Messina says:

    Again, Meg Powden is a problem.

    There seems to be a repetitive pattern here with each board meeting that takes place: Gag orders for teachers, unnecessary executive sessions, decisions being made without the public’s input, speaking on behalf of the chairman, not allowing to hear concerns brought forward publicly and privately and not addressing issues she is aware of. That’s just the beginning of the list of concerns with Powden.

    Since when is she allowed to speak on behalf of the chairman? She has got to go. Many people are unhappy with her. It’s clear she’s not being held accountable for anything that she both does and does not do. I thought the board was supposed to keep her in check. This is not happening. She is ruling over these board members, which is not her place and not in her job description. I wish people would stand up and do something.

    I cannot support a school system that is run this way. I refuse to make my younger children go to any school that is run by such incompetence. It truly saddens me because our teachers at both CTES and GMUHS are amazing and a big part of why we moved here three years ago. My two younger children will never have the privilege of being taught with such caring, wonderful and incredibly gifted teachers.

    Currently, I feel I’m left with homeschooling my third grader next year, then looking into a school district outside of the one we are under. It shouldn’t be this way.

  4. J. Smart says:

    Every time Meg Powden’s name is mentioned, there seems to be a problem. Is it time for a change? John

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