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Board questioned about legal charges regarding public information requests

One colossal charge deemed ‘a mistake,’ but still no documents have been delivered

GUILFORD—Why residents would be charged legal fees ranging from $800 to $7,000 for information requests — without getting the requested information — has recently been a hot topic for the Selectboard.

At the board’s March 28 meeting, former Selectboard member Richard Clark started the chat, saying he had made a public records request regarding the Planning Commission in early February, asking for emails from Town Administrator Peder Rude.

Clark said two days later he received a letter with “a proposal for $13,352, including $7,000 in legal fees.”

“Why are attorney fees even in there?” he asked, noting that he returned a week later with his own thumb drives and was promised they would be loaded, thereby avoiding any photocopying charges, which are to be expected in public record requests.

He then received a second letter noting an $810 fee.

“Everything I asked for is on the computer, with very few exceptions,” Clark said, questioning why Rude didn’t meet his request.

“He keeps saying, ‘I gotta call my attorney, I gotta call my attorney, I gotta call my attorney’. . . and that should not be the case,” said Clark, noting that he himself was a board member for 15 years.

Clark said he is now sending his request for information to the Vermont attorney general’s office to “see if perhaps I can’t get some response that way.”

Addressing the issue in the absence of Rude, who has been on leave due to a health issue, newly elected Board Chair Zon Eastes said he couldn’t answer Clark inclusively.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Eastes said. “We are constrained by statute that we can’t simply release emails out of a system to anyone who asks without having a legal review. . .that’s what I’ve understood.”

“That’s farfetched,” Clark responded. “That’s not the case. There are very few [of the requested documents] on there that are exempt from public information and if they are on there, they shouldn’t be.”

Eastes said there is no wish to keep information from Clark or anyone, and that the protocol is “just to make sure we’re not getting ourselves into any legal issue.”

Another request

“Who is in charge, Peder Rude or you guys?” asked Jason Herron.

Former Chair Richard Wizansky, speaking remotely via Zoom, then said “a statute lawyer” has to review information requested.

Herron, who ran unsuccessfully earlier this year for a seat on the board, said he has requested conflict of interest information and emails from Wizansky and Rude, plus conflict of interest questionnaires he said have been completed since 2018.

He, too, was told that town counsel had to look at it.

Herron then asked for documents already signed, and for disclosure statements, and was told the lawyer had to review that request also. He also asked for a breakdown of costs for his requests of what taxpayers would have to pay for him to receive them.

He received a letter from Rude noting an $815 charge and saying that the records he requested “do not exist” under the names he noted and that the town is “not required to create public records where these records do not exist.”

“Did he talk to the attorney?” asked Herron. “He won’t tell me. . . this is all public record. Peter Rude gets paid $60,000 a year to look at your emails.”

Herron said he is asking because he understands that in 2019 the Selectboard and Rude told Wizansky — then chair and a Guilford Free Library Trustee — that he needed to abstain from conversations about library funding.

Then, when the library renovation project voted at the March 1 Annual Town Meeting and to be reconsidered at a Special Town Meeting for that purpose on May 24 came up, Wizansky himself seconded the motion, not having received another to put it on the warrant.

“I want to know what happened,” said Herron. “You shouldn’t even be discussing this motion, never mind voting on it.”

“I don’t have any answers,” Eastes said. “We need to understand more than we do."

“That’s what kind of bothers me,” replied Herron. “Peder’s really the one who’s pulling all the strings. . . you think there’s a state statute. . .there’s a statute that says we’re not allowed to have all information. . .but you’re still supposed to tell us that there’s something there. . .but to actually call in a lawyer and pay a lawyer on top of what we’re paying Peder to do the same job. . .I’m just being stonewalled here. . .we want you guys to come up with answers.”

That’s when Eastes said, “let’s put this on another agenda.”

“Do you guys not see a problem with this?” asked Herron, noting several others, including Selectboard member Verandah Porche, were “in the room” when Wizansky was counseled to recuse himself from Library issues.

Porche, first saying she was speaking for herself, then said that “as a Selectboard member” she thought that in a conflict of interest, recusing oneself from a vote is predicated on “some sense that a benefit would come to the individual.”

She said that “it does not feel like a big deal” because “the Library supported the plan,” said Porche, who also schooled Herron on properly speaking to the board for a moment.

“You’re dodging the question,” said Herron.

“Do you see there’s a problem with the way you’re talking to us right now?” asked Eastes, just before Wizansky caught his attention and suggested “we move on from this discussion.”

“We’re not attempting to stonewall or stop any action,” Eastes said.

“My gut feeling is Peder Rude doesn’t want me to have those emails,” said Clark.

“Me, either,” added Herron.

“Well, we’ll look into that,” said Eastes, saying the Clark charges were under advisement of “our legal services, but that was a mistake.”

Herron asked that the board make “looking into that” a formal action, which this board consistently does and lists as part of meeting minutes.

Again noting Rude’s absence, Eastes said that he would do so as promised.

No answers yet

Herron returned to the board’s April 11 meeting and three minutes was spent in his asking if the board had come through in his request for the 2018 disclosure statements.

“We have not been able to do a single thing,” Eastes, said, again noting Rude’s leave and saying he doesn’t yet know if the board has access to the documents requested.

He added that in the short conversations he has been permitted to have with Rude, this “hasn’t been the highest priority.”

Herron repeated his request and added a new one for invoices/payments for legal advice and et cetera from Aug. 12 to Sept. 9, 2019 and from Feb. 1 to April 11, 2022 with dates and topics of any meetings between any attorney and Selectboard member.

“We’ll take those under advisement, Jason,” Eastes said. “We will do the best we can.”

“This is a problem,” said Herron before leaving the meeting. “It needs to be addressed.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #660 (Wednesday, April 20, 2022). This story appeared on page A7.

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