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Did Selectboard violate Open Meeting Law? ‘It’s a gray area,’ state says

NEWFANE—When the Selectboard added an actionable item to the April 11 regular Board meeting agenda, did they violate the state’s open meeting law?

Just after the call to order, Board member Mike Fitzpatrick made a motion, “to add Assistant Town Clerk wages to the agenda,” and the Board unanimously voted in favor of the change.

Later in the meeting, the Board went into Executive Session, came out of it, and then unanimously voted to pay Assistant Town Clerk Dedra Dunham for work already performed and to sign the associated pay orders.

According to Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters, the Board’s decision to vote on a just-added agenda item falls into a “gray area.”

As per Title 1 of the state’s statutes, the Selectboard must publicly post a meeting agenda 48 hours prior to the event.

The law does allow adjustments to the agenda as long as they are made during the first act of business at the meeting. On that count the Board acted properly.

But, Winters said, adding an agenda item on which the Board voted, without proper warning, “is a violation of the spirit and the intent” of the open meeting law. That the Selectboard discussed the item during Executive Session is irrelevant, because after they re-enter the public portion of the meeting, the public still should have the opportunity to comment on the item.

“Our recommendation of a best practice so the public can comment” is to warn a special meeting for agenda items requiring Board action, Winters told The Commons.

Special Board meetings require only a 24-hour warning.

In A Guide to Open Meetings, issued by Secretary of State James Condos, citizens are encouraged to know their “right to know.”

“You can read the open meeting law for yourself,” the booklet says. “The open meeting law is found in every town clerk’s office, in Title 1 of the Vermont Statutes Annotated.” The text of this law is on the internet at the Vermont State Legislature’s website at www.leg.state.vt.us/statutes/sections.cfm?Title=01 & Chapter=005.

“Any citizen who feels the open meeting law has been violated” can bring it up to the offending Selectboard, Winters told The Commons. If that doesn’t work, Winters said the next step is to “take it to Superior Court to ‘cure’” the offense.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #354 (Wednesday, April 27, 2016). This story appeared on page D4.

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