Editorial: Chester Select Board should reject secrecy

A few days before each meeting, members of the Chester Select Board receive a packet of documents relating to upcoming agenda items. Among the draft minutes from previous meetings and liquor license renewal applications for Wednesday’s session is a recommendation from Town Manager David Pisha for how the board should interview candidates for the Planning Commission, the Development Review Board, any sub-committee of the Select Board and the zoning administrator

Pisha recommends conducting the interviews in executive session. Let’s say that another way; in secret, behind closed doors, out of the public eye.

If the board approves the procedure at its Feb. 1 meeting, interviews for such positions will – from now on – be conducted in executive session for what the recommendation calls the “equality, comfortability and privacy” of applicants.

This a very bad idea.

To begin with, secret proceedings tend to breed questions and rumors, eroding the public’s confidence in the process. And – fairly or unfairly – that can, in turn, erode confidence in those appointed.

And, since successful candidates will be doing the public’s business, the public has a right to know what their qualifications are and what the Select Board believes is important to ask them.

Members of the Select Board, including chairman John DeBenedetti — who has flip-flopped on the idea — have said that the secret sessions are necessary to prevent one candidate from gaining an advantage by hearing the questions asked of another candidate in an open session. And, DeBenedetti has contended, that the board cannot ask anyone to leave an open meeting and that a candidate would be within his or her rights to stay and listen.

But that is a specious argument.

Chris Winters, Vermont’s Deputy Secretary of State, told The Telegraph last week that there is nothing illegal in instituting a procedure in which candidates are asked to wait outside while interviews are conducted in public. If someone refuses to follow the established rules, the board has learned something valuable: that the candidate refuses to follow rules. That would certainly be a disqualifier for sitting on the DRB since its job is interpreting the town’s zoning laws as a quasi-judicial body whose decisions can be appealed to Vermont’s Environmental Court.

And then there is the argument that a secret interview protects an applicant’s comfort and privacy. But that is a weak rationale since shrinking violets tend not to ask for such duty, knowing full well that once appointed, they will be obliged to take part in public meetings that at times can be contentious.

While interviewing candidates for crucial positions of public trust behind closed doors does not violate the letter of the Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, secrecy on such flimsy pretexts definitely violates its spirit.

When it is not strictly necessary to meet behind closed doors, the law says the people’s business should be done in public. And when in doubt, as Secretary of State Jim Condos has said many times, a board should err on the side of transparency and openness.

Such openness and transparency is your right.

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  1. Claudio Veliz says:

    Having served for the better part of two years on the Planning Commission, I can say, unequivocally, that there is absolutely no aspect of the execution of our duties on that commission that would justify selection by the Select Board in executive session. The argument to do so is wholly without merit.

    In fact, to the contrary, the discussions conducted – and decisions made – by the Planning Commission are, ostensibly, in the best interests of the Chester community at large. By their very nature, they call for an environment of transparency, debate, openness and engagement.

    Selecting those who will sit on the commission via executive session in secrecy is an immediate violation of that spirit and can generate suspicion as to what one or more of the Select Board members may wish to gain by conducting interviews in secret.

    The Select Board has an opportunity to do the right thing and sidestep any community suspicions of ulterior motives by embracing what is in Chester’s best interests through transparent and fair conduct in the selection of the most qualified, most engaged candidates for the Planning Commission via open, public forum.