One person’s ‘good law’ is another’s ‘underfunded mandate’

With some town websites offline to avoid breaking public records law, community volunteers pick up the slack on their own terms

The most recent version of the open-meeting and public-records laws, Act 129, signed into law by Governor Peter Shumlin in May, clarifies “five days” as five calendar days, scuttling hopes of smaller town governments for a little leniency in complying with the law.

This legislation did not make the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) happy.

The municipal advocacy group's executive director, Maura Carroll, who blamed the Vermont Press Association for being “unreasonable,” said this requirement could be onerous for towns of 1,500 or fewer, where boards are comprised of volunteers who also have day jobs.

As it is, some small towns around the state, including some in Windham County, have taken down their municipal websites to avoid breaking the public records law.

After the 2014 update to the law - sponsored in part by Windham County Democratic State Senator Jeanette White, in which towns with websites have to post minutes within five days - two towns, Vernon and Townshend, disabled their sites.

One Vernon resident on the planning commission, Martin Langeveld, decided to put up a website himself - - to provide a gateway for people interested in learning about the community, he said.

Did he put it up to provide access to public documents? No, he said. “It's not really for minutes,” he said, though the site has a repository in its document archive.

Langeveld thinks “every town should have a a website with information on it: contact info, and who is on what boards.” But, for Langeveld, it's about providing enough information for someone who might be curious about moving there, to contact the right people, and get a feel for Vernon.

He said he does not have to comply with the law as it is privately run and owned, and not an official town website.

Frederick Hege of Townshend similarly took up the slack, and said he is just starting to break even on a website he set up a year or so ago - - following the town's response to the 2014 law, in choosing to take down the website.

Since doing so, he said his stance has “hardened” with regard to the state mandates for posting public documents on an official website.

Noting that he also does not comply with the posting public documents in any timely manner either (“Nothing is timely in Townshend,” he quipped), doing so when when he can, he averages about eight hours a week managing the website, including an email list of people who have requested meeting minutes and notifications.

“It's a state mandate that is underfunded,” Hege said, encapsulating his objection to the current law.

While acknowledging the need of reporters who work weekends on a deadline, he said the only time anyone had any interest in Townshend, to his recollection, was when “the tractor trailer hit” the town gazebo, (making national news because of the structure's origin as part of the set of the 1988 Chevy Chase movie Funny Farm, filmed on the town common.

Otherwise, “meetings are boring. No one is really interested,” Hege said, his conclusion after running his website for a year.

White calls the public records legislation “a good law.”

“And I do believe that for the most part, most public officials do want to be open and transparent. Most do not set out to violate the law,” she said.

“There will always be some who purposely violate but more often there will be those who violate unintentionally. That is why there is the ability to correct allowed in the law. And the allowance for good faith.”

In response to the condition of the law regarding websites and compliance, “I continue to believe that if minutes of meetings must be available within five days [the law since the 1970s], it is not an additional hardship to require them to be posted. So many people get their information online that to put them at a disadvantage does not make sense.”

“The underlying intent of the open meeting law is that citizens are entitled to know what their government and officials are doing and there are limited circumstances that require non-openness. I continue to hold that opinion,” White concluded.

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