Local and state government meetings and public records should be easily accessible to Vermonters, according to Secretary of State Jim Condos
Condos spoke to about three dozen public officials and private citizens – along with a college class – as he made a recent stop in Winooski as part of his Transparency Tour designed to help spread the word about government accountability in Vermont.
Notably absent from the free training session were public officials or members of municipal boards and commissions that often struggle with understanding the basics of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law.
The public has a right to know the truth about how the people’s government operates, according to Condos last Wednesday.
“Understanding these laws makes everyone a better citizen,” Condos said. He explained the ultimate boss is the public when it comes to any government.
Condos quoted the Vermont Constitution: “That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times in a legal way, accountable to them.”
He said that same belief is further repeated in state law with a declaration of public policy. “Public commissions, boards and councils and other public agencies in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and are accountable to them.”
The same is true for the statement of policy approved by the legislature concerning access to government records, said Condos, who was accompanied by two staff members.
“Officers of government are trustees and servants of the people and it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment…” Condos said quoting the law.
The two-hour training session also provided a chance for questions from the audience, which included current and former city councilors, mayors, Selectboard and planning commission members. Among those attending from Shelburne were Town Clerk Diana Vachon, Selectboard member Josh Dein, School Board Director and former state legislator Joan Lenes and the new administrative assistant for the assessor and bookkeeper Bettyjean Bogue.
Also on hand were former and current state legislators, including Rep. Maida Townsend, D-South Burlington, who chairs the House Government Operations Committee. The House Government Operations Committee, along with its counterpart in the Senate, often takes the lead on transparency issues and legislation.
During his discussion about open meetings, Condos explained the proper way to schedule, conduct and close a public meeting. He noted the agenda has to be available at least 48 hours before a regular meeting for anybody who asks for it and 24-hours before a special meeting. The agenda also has to be posted at least two public places, along with the town’s website if one is maintained during those same time periods.
He said emergency meetings also are possible, but involve “unforeseen occurrences” or a condition that needs immediate attention. Condos said those are reserved for incidents like Tropical Storm Irene, not because the board forgot to sign a document. He said a special meeting with at least 24 hours’ notice can handle those situations.
Condos urged officials not to get involved in group email exchanges because that can be classified an unwarned meeting and the public does not have a chance to weigh in. Vermont law does allow for materials to be sent to board members in advance of discussion at a public meeting so that it can be studied ahead, he explained.
Condos, a former longtime city councilor in South Burlington, called meeting minutes the history of the town or government agency holding the meeting. He said the minutes should give a true indication of the meeting, including covering all topics and announcements mentioned and all motions offered.
The minutes, or a proposed draft, must be made available after five calendar days and posted to the website for public review, Condos said.
He said boards are limited to what they can discuss in executive or closed-door sessions. The motion to close the meeting must be done in open session and he said that when boards complete their work in executive session, it is best to make a motion in open session ending the secret session to make clear it can resume taking action. No action can be taken in executive session except securing real estate.
During the public records portion of his presentation, Condos explained that “any written or recorded information” regardless of physical form or characteristics, produced or acquired in the course of public agency business is considered a public record. Records are not limited to paper, he explained.
Condos further explained that records must be provided “promptly” when requested ans if the record holder believes the documents are exempt, there is a three-day period to reject the request.
Municipalities may charge actual costs for copies, Condos said. That means 5 cents for a photocopy or 9 cents if both sides of a sheet are used. His office sets the fees for actual costs, including for tapes, computer disks and other items. Towns are expected to use the state fee schedule unless they can document different actual costs.
He said records can be denied, but there is an appeal to the head of the agency. If the case ends up in court and the judge rules in favor of disclosure, the requester will be able to win mandatory legal fees from the losing party.
The fourth biennial Transparency Tour has a handful of stops remaining this fall. They include at the Ilsley Public Library on Main Street in Middlebury on Nov. 1 and the St. Albans Town Hall on Lake Road on Nov. 2. Both sessions are 6 to 8 p.m.