Commentary: Do it in public — a call for transparency and accountability

By Cynthia Prairie
©2015 The Chester Telegraph

The Chester Telegraph has sent a formal letter of complaint alleging that on Nov. 19 of last year the Chester Select Board held an illegal executive session. You can read a copy of that complaint here.

Comment pleaseThat seems like a pretty serious step. But the fact is that Vermont statutes are weak when it comes to enforcement. Complaints are sent to the offending body and that body gets to decide whether or not its action was in violation and, if so, what kind of  “cure” it should undertake to set things straight. Would that we could all act as our own judge and jury.

Nevertheless, in our complaint, we’ve made some good-government suggestions for a “cure” that might keep meetings held in secret to a minimum.

What prompted us to make the complaint was not an inadvertent misstep by the Chester Select Board. For the board, as you can read in the complaint, had been schooled on the state’s Open Meeting Law just three weeks prior to this closed door meeting and, after the fact, members admitted to its real purpose, which was not acceptable under the law.

You might now being thinking: We elected them, we should trust them. But do you hand your children over to day-care, your money over to the bank or your car over to a mechanic without checking in to be sure everything is OK?  No, and when you see a problem, you call them out on it.

Good government depends on citizens keeping an eye on what happens in Town Hall, the State House or the Capitol and calling out our representatives when we see a problem.

We filed the complaint because we believe that your right to know was derailed by this closed door meeting. Open meetings and government transparency are centuries old concepts that have the force of law across the United States and in many other countries. They are pillars of democracy and have been put into place to help make governments — yes, even little ones like ours — accountable to the public that elects them and to reinforce our trust in that government. Rules have been established for properly holding meetings and for those rare moments when an issue should be handled in private.

And when can an issue be kept out of the public eye?  According to state statute, there are only nine reasons for closing the door on the public, and only the first six possibly involve a select board. They are:

  1. where a premature public knowledge of an issue would put the public body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage. These are limited to contracts, labor agreements with employees, grievances (but not tax grievances), mediation or arbitration, pending or probable civil litigation or prosecution and confidential attorney/client communications.
  2. negotiating or securing of real estate purchase or lease option;
  3. personnel appointment, employment or evaluation;
  4. discipline or dismissal action against an employee (but the employee still retains the right to a public hearing.)
  5. existence of a clear or imminent peril to public safety;
  6. discussing or considering of specific documents that are exempt from public access;
  7. academic records of students;
  8. certain testimony given in a parole hearing;
  9. discussion of certain drug rebates that have to do with Medicare and Medicaid law.

The closed door meeting that we lodged our complaint about could have been covered by Item 2, if indeed the Chester Select Board had announced in public exactly what the session was about and then had:

a. gone into the meeting with a representative of the party wishing to sell the property and conducted a negotiation or
b. agreed to a counteroffer or a ceiling that should not be known ahead of a negotiation or agreed to secure an option on the property.

But, none of that happened.

When this newspaper asked about the Nov. 19 executive session in an open meeting on Dec. 17, Select Board member Derek Suursoo said that “the initial concept was put out,” during the closed door meeting. Legally, that is not an exemption and the discussion should have been held in public.

At this point, we take no position on whether the purchase of this 139 acres is a good idea for the town or a bad one.  The only position that we are taking is that the public’s legal right to know was intentionally compromised.

Much mischief can be made behind closed doors, especially in government, where elected officials can hide behind the shield of doing the people’s business all while exercising the powers to regulate, legislate and appropriate on behalf of the people who are shut out of the meetings.

As has been said many times by this and past Vermont Secretaries of State, executive sessions should be few and they should be short. Is it any wonder that we are gob-smacked that the Chester Select Board spent 741 minutes (12.5 hours) in six closed door sessions between Aug. 20 and Nov. 19, 2014? What is just as extraordinary — and telling — is that little action came out of those meetings.

Are these just bull and chat sessions? If so, cut the bull and the chat. Enough of it goes on during the open meetings. Are these informational sessions? If so, hold them in public.

The public has a right to know the public’s business and the Chester Select Board needs to be held accountable.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 40 years. Cynthia 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, and has won numerous state awards for her reporting. As an editor, she has overseen her staffs to win many awards for indepth coverage. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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  1. mike leclair says:

    Agree !! Thank you for noting this. I would guess that our selectboard would prefer not going into executive sessions and this should help them to be open to assistance from the voters.

  2. Chris Curran says:

    Way to go Cynthia ! We applaud your watchful eye & ear.
    Keep up the good work.
    Chris & Ann