Pattern of behavior

A village violates state’s sunshine laws as standard operating procedure

ROCKINGHAM — Lamont Barnett, the town's newly elected Selectboard chair, has admitted knowingly acting on behalf of the full board - without approval and in violation of the state's Open Meeting Law - when he signed two letters of support at the request of a constituent “at the eleventh hour.”

The constituent also happens to be another public official - Saxtons River Trustees Chair Louise Luring - who has described the infraction as a “tempest in a teapot, [a] mountain out of a molehill,” done in the service of completing two grant applications for worthy local nonprofits.

But when notified of the incident, Deputy Secretary of State Christopher D. Winters said, “This looks like about as clear [a] violation as we ever see around here.”

“Here at the Secretary of State's Office, we promote transparency in state and local government as an important part of accountability and trust in government,” Winters wrote to The Commons. “We see it as vital to the health of our democracy.”

This brush is only the latest incident in a number of small violations involving Luring and Saxtons River, which, like Bellows Falls, is an incorporated village within the Rockingham town line.

Approximately 500 people reside in Saxtons River, whose public documents are often unavailable in violation of state statute, whose meeting minutes are made available on a telephone pole, and whose municipal officials are virtually impossible to find listed in a way where residents can know who they are - let alone contact them.

'The appropriate decision'

Barnett said Luring had approached him the day before two grants were due, asking him to sign “boilerplate” letters of support that are routinely provided by the town for nonprofits when applying for grant money.

In this case, the letters expressed local government support for Greater Falls Warming Shelter and Our Place Drop-In Center.

In an email to The Commons, Luring explained that the two grants sought funding for the two respective organizations from the same funding source: the Housing Opportunity Program (HOP) of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

Barnett, who served on the Selectboard a little over a decade ago, told the current board he had signed both and that he sought his fellow members' approval of his action retroactively at the May 24 meeting.

He told The Commons that he “did not want these organizations” to do without the funding and accommodated the request of Luring, who serves on both boards.

“Every year Louise or her group submit grant applications for money for the Warming Shelter and for Our Place,” Barnett said, and the organizations needed the Selectboard to submit “a boilerplate letter of support” to include with the respective applications for the two nonprofits.

“It's exactly the same and done every year,” he said. “Louise had forgotten.”

He said he told Luring, “Yeah, I'll do it,” but he cautioned her not to “do this again.” He said he told her, “It should be done at a board meeting.”

Barnett has served on municipal boards before, and said he is aware of the Open Meeting Law.

When faced with the prospect of the agencies losing potential money, “Sometimes you gotta make the appropriate decision,” he said.

The board ratified the chair's action in a 3–1 vote, with Peter Golec the lone dissenter.

Golec said that “signing these documents was a violation of state statute, and no one person can take action on behalf of a board without authorization to do so.”

Fellow board member Ann DiBernardo agreed, saying that, going forward, such decisions should not be repeated. But in the end, she voted to approve Barnett's decision.

Deputy Secretary of State Winters called the scenario “indeed disturbing.”

Difficult to comply

Meanwhile, in Saxtons River, examples of noncompliance abound.

Meeting minutes and agendas are currently not available online but are available by request - if you can find contact info for the board, which is not listed anywhere online.

The Commons has documented its public records requests submitted to Luring in her role as chair of the Saxtons River Village Trustees.

Since the establishment of an email list as a means for the village to send agendas to those who have requested these materials, agendas have been sent by email 24 hours ahead of the Monday meetings, consistent with the state's Public Records Law.

But meeting minutes are only occasionally available within the five-day window that has long been a requirement of the law; they become available anywhere within a week to up to three weeks. Some minutes are still not available.

Saxtons River Village Trustees minutes for May 2 were made available on May 17 via email. Minutes for April 4 and 18 were made available on May 4 via email.

Examination going back to 2014 reveals similarly inconsistent release of minutes within the statutory five-day requirement.

In October 2014, Luring's response to requests for minutes went like this:

For the Oct. 20, 2014 Trustees' meeting minutes, she replied by email on Oct. 26, writing, “I don't have them yet.”

“I copied your email to the secretary,” she wrote. “He works full time, so can't always whip out the minutes in five days.”

The Commons queried then–Deputy Secretary of State Brian Leven on Luring's response, who replied Oct. 27.

“Under the open meeting laws, minutes are required to be made available five days after a meeting. In addition, the law was amended last legislative session to require a public body to post minutes within five days on a website designated or maintained by the public body,” Leven responded.

“These requirements apply to all public bodies regardless of whether there are volunteers on the board and regardless of whether some effort is required in complying with them.”

When The Commons shared Leven's reply with Luring, her full reply was: “I am aware of the law.”

Open government?

The Saxtons River Trustees' minutes are available only by request and are not posted on the town website, They have been posted in Saxtons River “on a telephone pole,” at the post office, and at a bulletin board by the village store.

Citizens can, paradoxically, learn this information from the board minutes themselves.

When asked in 2014 why the Trustees did not use the town website, Luring responded, “Minutes are not posted anywhere. That is not required, only that they be available upon request.”

“Also, the town website is for Rockingham and Bellows Falls, since they operate under a town manager, whose office maintains the website,” she wrote.

In 2014, the Saxtons River Village Trustees rejected a standing request for minutes. And with no website to document the Trustees' meetings, it is virtually impossible for citizens to make requests with any specificity.

“We are not required to send out minutes and don't regularly do so, nor do we have a website on which to post them,” Luring wrote. “Happy to respond to specific requests.”

In the same email chain, Secretary Tim Clark responded, “I'm sorry, but I don't have a standing list. I respond to people who request them. What meetings do you want currently?”

The municipal website

“I know that is hard for people to grasp, but just think of Saxtons River as a separate municipality run entirely by volunteers with no website,” Luring wrote.

“Saxtons River is a local government that has documented agreements with both the Town of Rockingham and Bellows Falls Village Corporation. They operate under a set of by-laws,” said Municipal Manager Willis “Chip” Stearns.

The town website refers to Saxtons River on a Joint Board page, saying that “when circumstances require,” the Saxtons River Village Trustees might be a part of the tri-board meetings with the Rockingham Selectboard and the Bellows Falls Village Trustees.

The description on the town website says simply, “In 1820, the Town established boundaries of the village, and in 1905, the Village of Saxtons River was incorporated and since then has been overseen by a Board of Trustees elected by registered voters of the Village.”

The website notes several agreements regarding wastewater and the Saxtons River recreation area, with the Village of Bellows Falls, and with the Selectboard, respectively. A separate website exists for the Saxtons River Park project.

On Facebook, the Saxtons River Fire Department and the recreation area maintain pages as the only municipal presences on the social networking site.

Neither the list of currently serving trustees nor their contact info is available in a Google search of “Saxtons River Trustees.”

FACT8 provides regular coverage of trustee meetings that are posted on their website on the television station's own timeline.

Stearns recently said that Saxtons River Trustees could request use of the town website through the joint boards.

Any requirements “would be determined if the permission was granted,” he said. “A minimum of Open Meeting Law requirements would have to be met.”

Like many municipalities in the region, Rockingham and Bellows Falls use as a service for the website.

Eric Johnson, a spokesman for the service, based in Minnesota, said the content management system tailored for government provides “flexible content and unlimited pages,” meaning that use of the site by the Saxtons River Village Trustees as Bellows Falls does would incur no further expense for the domain.

On June 3, Luring told The Commons, apparently referring to questions about using the town website, “Keep in mind, that S[axtons] R[iver] has no paid employees, so we are not necessarily looking for more work for our volunteers nor more expenses.”

Reviewing the rules

“One important foundation of openness in Vermont is the 'right to know' laws, including those related to open meetings and public records,” noted Winters, the deputy secretary of state.

“Together, they are the most important public laws we have because they allow us direct access to the decisions that affect us,” he told The Commons. “A full understanding of these laws makes everyone a better citizen.”

“We understand that it can be difficult for towns to comply with the open meeting law - especially those towns with limited resources,” Winters said.

“The Legislature determined that the public's right to know outweighed any inconvenience or burden felt by the town staff,” he noted. “The right to know is that important.”

“While the Secretary of State's office has no enforcement power over towns, we regularly encourage citizens (including journalists) to bring open meeting and public record law violations to the public body for relief.

“If that does not work, we advise taking their complaints for enforcement to the Superior Court when necessary.”

In a special meeting on May 31, both the Bellows Falls Village Trustees and the Rockingham Selectboard received open meeting law training from attorney Ray Massucco.

Luring said the Saxtons River trustees did not attend and were not invited.

“No. Never have,” she wrote when asked if the trustees had ever participated in such training.

“We do review the rules, though,” she said.

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