Just a Bill: Legislating on the edge of transparency guarantees

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Any long time reader of The Telegraph will know that we take Vermont’s Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act seriously. These are the statutes meant to preserve and defend the public’s right to know what government is doing in their name, in your name and with your money.

From time to time, legislators look at ways to improve the effectiveness of such laws. And at other times they seek to reduce their effectiveness. More often than not, such proposals make small changes that seem little to get excited about, but the cumulative effects need to be looked at carefully to preserve transparency.

Several measures have been introduced this year that would make changes that need careful examination to see if they would make for more open government or not. They are:

Sen. Alison Clarkson of Windsor

S 55 – Allows public bodies to meet electronically without a physical location: Sen. Alison Clarkson, who represents the Windsor District, introduced this bill to change one of the requirements of public bodies that hold remote meetings.

Under current law, the body may meet via Zoom or some other platform but one member has to be at a physical location – like the town office or town hall – where the public may attend in person.

This bill would drop that requirement, making it possible for all members of a public body to meet remotely regardless of whether members of the public have access to the technology to attend. Sen. Clarkson could not be reached for comment on the origin or the need for the legislation.

Sen. Irene Wrenner of Chittenden North

S 237 – Posting of Municipal Employment Opening: While not a bill directly relating to either the Open Meeting or Public Records law, the bill introduced by Sen. Irene Wrenner of the Chittenden-North District mandates a measure of transparency in municipal hiring.

With nearly two dozen additional sponsors, S 237 says that Vermont’s municipalities will be required to publicly post any employment vacancies in certain places including the state Labor Department’s job bank.

There would also be information required in the posting, including the compensation or range of compensation and the date that the application period begins and ends. The bill also says that the application period can’t be fewer than 10 days.

Rep. Woodman Page of Orleans 2

Rep. Woodman Page of Orleans 2

H 637 – Repeal of the Litigation Exemption in the Public Records Act: Rep. Woodman Page of Newport says his bill comes from his town’s experience with the EB5 scandal and the difficulty that the press has had trying to break loose information about the state’s role in the scam.

Page said Vermont is “one of very few states that has this rather broad exemption.”

“I don’t see a reason why it has to continue,” Page told The Telegraph,“but I don’t see it moving forward although I think it should.”

Rep Joe Andriano of Addison-Rutland

H 638 – Creating a Working Group on Asynchronous Open Meetings: Rep. Joe Adriano of Orwell is a lawyer and chair of that town’s Development Review Board.

He’s interested in the intersection of technology and open meetings and thought that informal meetings where members of a board could define terms, understand existing conditions and ask basic questions but where the public could attend at its convenience. Adriano says he knows there are issues with the concept and he’d like to see the legislature set up a study committee.

“I don’t know if (asynchronous open meetings) will work or not, but I’d like us to take a look at the question and think through if this could be useful or a non-starter,” said Adriano.

Rep. Anne Donahue of Washington-1

Rep. Anne Donahue of Washington-1

H 640 – Allowing two members of three member boards to meet privately: Rep. Anne Donahue of Washington-1 told The Telegraph that three-member boards are a challenge because no member can discuss public business with another outside a public forum because the two constitute a quorum and thus an illegal meeting. Donahue said she was looking for a workable solution in allowing board members to discuss business outside of a meeting so long as they disclose what was discussed and no actions were taken.

Donahue also agreed that such a situation could make concealing information possible and said that perhaps only having five member boards would work as well.

H 642 – Clarifying that non-participants attending public meetings electronically don’t have to identify themselves: Donahue also introduced this bill having been asked to identify herself and her organization during a meeting she was attending remotely. She noted that Vermont law requires anyone wishing to participate in a meeting to identify themselves, but that does not extend to those who are not participants. “I don’t want to see people potentially feeling intimidated when attending a public meeting,” said Donahue who feels this bill will clarify what is already the law.

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