TRSU chair Orzechowski: ‘We violated open meeting law’ Orzechowski apologizes, Powden does not attend, Prairie unconvinced

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing  LLC

TRSU board chair Paul Orzechowski tells the meeting the board had violated the law. Courtesy Okemo Valley TV. All other photos by Shawn Cunningham or Cynthia Prairie.

With Two Rivers Supervisory Union Superintendent Meg Powden not in attendance, board chair Paul Orzechowski admitted that the TRSU board had violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law and apologized at a May 16 special meeting held by video conference with members attending from Chester-Andover Elementary, TRSU in Ludlow and from Middlebury.

“We received a complaint from The Chester Telegraph alleging that we violated the Open Meeting Law and I acknowledge that we did violate the Open Meeting Law,” said Orzechowski. (See: Chester Telegraph claims TRSU violated Open Meeting Law.)

“We cited the executive session wrong. What I should have said was ‘next on the agenda we’ll go into executive session. I ask for a motion to go into executive session. My belief regarding an administrator’s contract and matters related place the employee and the board at the disadvantage.'”

Four members of the TRSU board listen to Orzechowski at Chester-Andover Elementary where a GMUSD meeting was to be held.

“And after, that I make a motion stating ‘after making a specific finding that premature general public knowledge would clearly place the public body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage, I move that we go into executive session to discuss an administrations contract and related matters.’ ”

“So we did violate the Open Meeting Law and I apologize for that,” said Orzechowski, who met with Powden, GM board chair Joe Fromberger and TRSU attorney Chris Leopold while at the Lake Morey Resort on Wednesday. They were there for a school board training session that ironically included the Open Meeting Law.

Legal advice notwithstanding, Orzechowski’s explanation of what was wrong with the session failed on at least two counts.

  1. The session was listed on the agenda as being about “Labor relations” when the wording of the law is  for “Labor relations agreements with employees.” In other words, collective bargaining agreements. But administrators are “non bargaining staff” who have contracts, but not labor agreements. The session could have been done under contracts, but the law says the board has to “indicate the nature” of what will be talked about, as opposed to simply citing the relevant subsection of the statute. That was not done.
  2. And before it can move to close the door to the public and talk about contracts, agreements and other negotiations the public body – not just the chair – must first make that specific finding Orzechowski referred to above. Members of the board – except Orzechowski – told The Telegraph the did not know what the private session was about. But according to Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters, “Such a finding requires a weighing of specific facts and circumstances that is impossible if you don’t know what you are voting on.” That did not happen.

Cynthia Prairie, editor and publisher of the Chester Telegraph, who filed the notice of complaint, said, “While we appreciate the apology, our complaint had nothing to do with whether the statute was quoted correctly. After all, the statute isn’t a incantation that protects them from such violations.

“The complaint has to do with the fact that the board was not informed of why it was entering executive session and therefore could not make a proper decision that it was legal to do so. This has everything to do with transparency — transparency of the supervisory union to the board and of the board to the public.”

What is the remedy?

Dan Buckley, left, – lone board member at the meeting site – says someone dropped the ball

What do we have to do to remedy the situation?” asked Dan Buckley, the lone TRSU board member holding down the fort at the SU offices in Ludlow – the site of the meeting warned in the agenda.

Orzechowski said that his apology and training would take care of it, then asked for a motion to hold an open meeting training session at the next TRSU board meeting on June 6, 2019.

“Who is putting on that session?” asked Board member Kate Lamphere.

“Meg is in the process of finding someone to put that session on,” said Orzechowski.

“An attorney in our attorney’s office by the name of Kevin McNeil, I think,” said member Joe Fromberger.

Lamphere asked if it was possible to open the training to the boards of the SU’s two school districts and recommended that the meeting be held in a venue large enough to accommodate the members.

“I have another comment on this,” said Buckley. “We had to jury-rig a meeting because this had to be replied to in 10 days.  Why was nothing done prior to last night to address this? If we knew that we had 10 days to do this, why wasn’t something done earlier this week instead of in a panic situation?”

“I didn’t know we had to do it openly in the public,” said Orzechowski.  “I tried to look through the law book and couldn’t find it and I thought all we had to do is reply with an email that we violated it with the remedy. Yesterday I was informed that we had to have a public meeting about the violation. So I just did not know.”

The Telegraph’s written notice of violation was sent to the administration on May 7. It included a notice of the timing of a response and what is required to “cure” the violation.

“It was more toward the administration,” said Buckley. “If they knew we had to do a meeting why did nothing happen until yesterday?”

Members at three locations work at getting the video conference going.

“That’s a question for Meg,” replied Orzechowski. Powden was attending a Vermont Superintendents Association conference at the Lake Morey Resort and did not join in the video conference sessions. The annual meeting of the VSA was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.

“I wanted to bring that out in public,” said Buckley. “Someone dropped the ball.”

Lamphere told the meeting that she was concerned whether the apology and the training session “cures” the violation and asked if they could get the school’s lawyer on the phone.

Curriculum Director Michael Eppolito tried to reach Powden by text but was unsuccessful and in the end, the board passed the motion to have a training session and adjourned.

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  1. Frank Bidwell says:

    Well done Chester Telegraph.