No excuse for sloppy town governments

TOWNSHEND — Failure to keep adequate and appropriate records is a liability to our small towns. When municipalities become unable to provide documentation to substantiate or disprove accusations, it points to a deficiency in management.

Over the years, I've seen town officials and employees who do not document incoming complaints, but rather ask the caller to call a different elected official (who also does not document the complaint). When we fail to centralize or even keep records, we forego the ability to track complaints, to identify trends, or to follow up on a resolution.

Small Vermont towns should consider this deficiency an opportunity to improve communications with the public by providing official email addresses to town departments and mandating their use to ensure accountability.

Too often, our local elected officials, especially Selectboards, assume that no news is good news, but when they fail to make themselves accessible, that constitutes a refusal to engage the public.

Perhaps they understand what could happen if the public had the ability to track the issues that they choose to ignore - the dreaded accountability.

It has been speculated that some towns do not keep records of complaints because any official record of an issue might open the associated documentation to a open-records request. Too many small-town complaints are handled off the books. And we all know you can't audit someone who doesn't keep books.

Official written communication sent to towns should be recorded and publicly available, so why the resistance to a phone log? Can you imagine what the public would think of a law enforcement agency that did not log emergency calls? And what if those calls were never followed up? It would be appalling: clearly misfeasance, and bordering on malfeasance.

Yet so many small town governments do not recognize the need to mandate better internal controls for recordkeeping beyond the absolute minimum state standards.

One of the primary responsibilities of a town's selectboard is to limit the town's liability. Perhaps, in a way, not having any documentation could limit liability (in a twisted way) by creating plausible deniability. A better way to deal with situations is not to create deniability, but keep public records.

Plugging your fingers in your ears is not an appropriate response either. Failure to listen does not alleviate accountability or responsibility. It is just a matter of time before one of the undocumented complaints to a town goes unresolved and results in preventable injury or worse.

Complaints from illegal burning to loose dogs, to noise complaints, to health-code violations, are not recorded at the municipal level, where they are often first reported.

Town clerks should not be held to account as a clearinghouse for all town complaints, but when appropriate town officials are not publicly accessible, it falls to the town employee who picks up the phone to ensure the matter is documented and turned over to the correct person.

911 is not the correct answer either. All town officials should have a working phone number and email address listed on the town website, perhaps with a description of their duties. Official voicemail and email should be checked regularly.

These are not wild demands. These are the basic responsibilities of town officers, and Selectboards should be held accountable for maintaining standards.

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