How often is Vermont’s Open Meeting Law violated? Why we may never know

Published: Jun. 10, 2022 at 11:40 PM EDT
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BRATTLEBORO, Vt. (WCAX) - Brattleboro resident, Bob Oeser, wrote to the selectboard accusing them of making decisions regarding their recent ambulance contract with golden cross during executive session, an action that violates Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

“There’s a balancing act that needs to go on between what information is disclosed and what information really needs to go on in executive session, Oeser told selectboard members at their Tuesday night meeting.

During the meeting, the selectboard took ownership of the mistake, which is one way to remedy the problem.

But how often do mistakes limiting government transparency go unnoticed? Secretary of State Jim Condos says it can be hard to tell, especially when it comes to discussions taking place during executive sessions.

“It’s kind of the honor system, there’s no way of knowing. There’s no minute taken in the executive session. There’s no video in the executive session. They’re all cut off.”

The only record of reported* violations we could find are with the Attorney General’s Office. Since the start of 2022, they’ve received three complaints, but their office is a last resort.

“The first option of course is for the member of the public complaining to put it in writing and present it to the board and ask for them to consider it,” Condos explained.

From there, he says governing bodies have 10 days to acknowledge the complaint, then 14 more to fix any mistakes.

“If you did make a mistake and you didn’t follow the rules and someone files it in court, the court could negate any action you took during that meeting,” Condos explained.

Since the court system can be easily avoided and municipalities aren’t required to keep track of violations, it’s hard to tell where problem areas may exist.

Channel 3 reached out to 50 municipalities Friday afternoon asking how many kept this type of data. Of the 8 that responded, none of them did.

Justin Silverman, with the New England First Amendment Coalition, says the lack of apparent data could pose a risk.

“We as citizens need to know how many complaints are being filed against agencies under the open meeting law each year,” Silverman said. “The Open Meeting Law is an incredible tool for citizens to use to get that kind of access to its government.”

However, this law does more than create transparency in government. Silverman says it protects active participation in these meetings.

“It’s important for all public officials to provide that opportunity for their constituents to be heard at these meetings and vocalize their thoughts and opinions on important matters,” Silverman continued.

Also included in Vermont’s Open Meeting Law are guidelines for notifying people about meetings, what information needs to be given ahead of time, and an explanation of when executive sessions are allowed.

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