Editorial: Keeping an eye on the public’s business

By Cynthia Prairie
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

One of the most important missions of any newspaper is to be a check on government officials and agencies, including those with the state and towns and school systems, any place that has control over taxpayer funds.

From its launch almost 10 years ago, The Chester Telegraph has taken this mission seriously, calling out select boards and boards of education for failing to follow state Open Meetings and public records laws. The state laws are simple and easy to follow, with the overriding principles of transparency and openness. Both the Secretary of State’s Office and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns have excellent information regarding their implementation.

This isn’t “gotcha journalism.” Each time we find a problem, we ask ourselves if it was an oversight on the part of the public body, a single slip, a confusion or if it is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed publicly. Many changes have been made with simple reminders to public officials.

But sometimes we need to go public when the problem is recurring or so serious it needs to be called out. Through our efforts, public officials are more aware of their limitations when calling executive sessions, their requirements when calling meetings and issuing agendas, and their duties in making documents available to the public.

In particular, The Chester Telegraph’s work has resulted in improved meetings by the Chester Select Board and the boards of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union and the Green Mountain Board of Education.

But recently a new member of the Green Mountain Board of Directors thought that it would be a good idea to limit the detail of the meeting minutes taken at board meetings and destroy notes and recordings of those meetings after the minutes are approved. The suggestions were apparently pulled from websites that touted best practices for the private sector and were certainly not best practices for public bodies, anywhere. (See: May 26, 2021: GM board member wants …)

Now the detail of board minutes is by and large up to the board. Some boards opt for less detail than those at the TRSU and its school district boards. The minimum requirements, however, fail to convey some of the most insightful information: The whys. The reasoning. The thoughts.

But then came the way-over-the-top suggestion that the board destroy notes and recordings, a explicitly illegal action in the public sector, going all the way up to the White House.

We offered the board member, Dennis Reilly of Cavendish, the opportunity to speak with us, during which he would have been given the time to explain his reasoning and clear up any confusion. His response: “I can’t imagine what you could write about. I seriously don’t believe my suggestions for meeting minutes, yet to be discussed, are newsworthy. Unless, someone put a spin on it. I guess I’ll wait to read your article.”

Mr. Reilly does not understand that being elected to a public body means that he must follow laws that are more strict on his behavior and call for more openness than those for a private business. He should educate himself on those laws right away. The Vermont Secretary of State and the Vermont School Boards Association have materials available for public officials to get up to speed.

And I am sure that he also did not expect the scrutiny that his very public position calls for. Needless to say, we will continue to watch and listen and read and report on it when necessary.

We hope that you, unlike Mr. Reilly, have found that our exposure of these “suggestions” to be newsworthy.

Here’s just a few — and I do mean a few — of the other situations we have exposed:

May 8, 2019: Chester Telegraph claims TRSU board violated state Open Meeting Law

May 22, 2019: TRSU chair Orzechowski: ‘We violated open meeting law’ 

June 5, 2019: TRSU displays pattern of Open Meeting Law violations

June 12, 2019:  Questionable executive session 

June 23, 2018: Powden claims ‘no intentional violation’ in Telegraph open meeting complaint

May 25, 2016: Improper warning forces rescheduling of Grafton special meeting; Sands questioned on meeting with Iberdrola

Jan. 28, 2015: Chester Select Board rejects Open Meeting Law complaint, pulls Australian ballot articles

 June 24, 2014: New water rates: See subhead: Open Meeting Law stumps some

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Filed Under: CommentaryTelegraph Editorial

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She 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. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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