TRSU boards split on curing transparency violations; only one follows the law

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Three boards of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union last week admitted to “errors” resulting in multiple violations of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, but only one “cured” the violation according to state statute and to the satisfaction of the complainant.

The May 2 TRSU meeting where all but one member did not know why they were excluding the public from a discussion.

On May 7, The Chester Telegraph sent a complaint to the board of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union alleging that it had entered into an executive session on May 2 improperly and, after several explanations, the board admitted that it had not followed the law in entering the session because:

  1.  five out of six board members had no idea what the session was about and thus could not find that closing the door to the public was necessary and
  2. the session had not been about “labor relations agreements with employees,” but rather concerned Superintendent Meg Powden’s contract and evaluation.

The Telegraph had learned on May 21 that boards have routinely gone into executive session at the behest of the superintendent and board chair without knowing why. Researching the past nine months, The Telegraph found eight examples, prompting another complaint to the boards of TRSU, GMUSD and LMHUUSD.

Powden, Orzechowski and Marin confer in the LES parking lot moments before the TRSU special meeting.

The complaint asked that the boards simply follow state law and admit the violations within 10 days, within 14 days after that, ratify or void any action taken as a result of the improper session. Finally the boards would need to adopt “specific measures that actually prevent future violations,” according to the Open Meeting Law. (1 VSA 314 (b)(4)(A))

Instead, Powden returned to the boards on June 12 and 13 with a four-step process involving motions to admit errors (as opposed to violations) and revise their improper moves into immediate executive session through “retroactive motions.” Before the TRSU meeting last Wednesday, the superintendent apparently briefed chairman Paul Orzechowski and board member Fred Marin on the plan in the LES parking lot.

Board member Doug McBride argued for a simpler, statute-based solution at both the GM and TRSU meetings

While this strategy was recommended by a lawyer working for TRSU, Doug McBride, an attorney who is also a member of the Green Mountain Unified School District Board, argued at both the TRSU and GMUSD meetings  that the simpler, by-the-statute approach was more appropriate since it satisfied the law and the complaint.

TRSU board member Joe Fromberger argued strenuously that the board should take the advice it had paid for rather than listen to McBride, while Ludlow’s Dan Buckley argued the opposite, noting that not taking the simpler path could open the SU to litigation under the Open Meeting Law. In the end, the TRSU board tied at 2 to 2 with Orzechowski breaking the tie in favor of the four-step process.

GM chair and TRSU member Joe Fromberger argued for taking the advice of the lawyer Powden had consulted.

Later that evening, the LMHUUSD board followed the TRSU board’s lead in passing four motions including retroactively entering into executive session.

Then on Thursday evening, the GMUSD board was presented with the four-motion plan, but McBride argued that the state Open Meeting Law laid out a clear remedy for the violations. Fred Marin made the first of the four motions, which was defeated after some discussion. At that point, McBride moved that the board admit an “inadvertent violation,” as well as follow state law in remedying the violation.

Board member Dan Buckley argues for taking the simpler path to curing the violation at the TRSU meeting on Wednesday night

The motion passed overwhelmingly, which means that within 14 days the GMUSD board must ratify or void the actions from its March 21 meeting and adopt specific measures “that actually prevent future violations.” According to the motion, these may include:

  1. board training on the law,
  2. having a copy of the statute at each meeting and
  3. requiring that future agendas warning executive sessions provide more accurate, detailed and specific information for the session.

“The actions of the Green Mountain board demonstrate that its members take their responsibility to the transparency of public information seriously,” said Telegraph publisher Cynthia Prairie. “The Telegraph has no desire to litigate our complaint, but the actions of the supervisory union and Ludlow Mount Holly boards make us wonder what it will take to instill the same understanding in them.”

One question remains. While the GM board voted to adopt measures to prevent future violations within 14 days, it appears that Powden, who makes up the agendas, did not include that action item on the board’s June 20 meeting agenda. That meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at Cavendish Town Elementary, 573 Main St. in Proctorsville.

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