Did a Grand Isle County Town violate Vermont’s Open Meeting Law?

Did a town in Grand Isle County violate Vermont’s Open Meeting Law?
Published: Aug. 5, 2022 at 11:18 PM EDT
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ISLE LA MOTTE, Vt. (WCAX) - Did a town in Grand Isle County violate Vermont’s Open Meeting Law? Comments made by an Isle La Motte selectboard member have legal experts looking into that.

During a selectboard meeting earlier this week, selectboard member Mary-Catherine Graziano asked names of meeting participants be removed from the meeting minutes...and not used by the press.

This happened during a conversation surrounding vandalism in the community-- specifically stealing and destroying pride flags.

“Excuse me, I do want to make it clear to any news folk that any names mentioned not beyond the record for this,it’s really important. If you heard any name regarding incidents, strike it from the record, I’ve asked it be removed from the minutes, privacy and anonymity is really important.”

The selectboard has since been contacted by the New England First Amendment Coalition, which is concerned about a violation of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law and free speech.

In a statement Graziano sent to Channel 3, she said in part:

“There is nowhere that I said that meeting attendees would be struck from the minutes, nor did i instruct anyone to remove people who had spoken on the record. by my use of “names that are mentioned”, I was distinguishing from “names that are stated,” referencing a very specific event in the meeting.”

I spoke with Justin Silverman of NEFAC, who says Graziano’s initial comments are still concerning.

“The kind of directive, like the one we saw at the meeting, to tell the press how to do their job and to report or not report information provided at this meeting, is very much in violation of the First Amendment,” Silverman said.

ACLU of Vermont’s Legal Director, Lia Ernst, echoed that concern citing Vermont’s Open Meeting Laws and the Public Records Act.

“An open meeting law requires when a public body is taking action-, it does so in a public way. so the people that body represents can know why the government comes to certain decisions and what decisions they come to and the meeting minutes memorialize those actions,” Ernst said.

While Graziano says her intent was to protect her family and other community members from targeted attacks, Silverman says anything said during a public meeting is still public record. Anything otherwise inhibits free speech.

“The law is very specific; All active participants in a public meeting must be included in the minutes.”

Ernst suggests anyone wanting to speak off the record contact those representing them outside of a public meeting.

“The intent here was not a wrongful one, but the balance in this case has to come out in case of openness, transparency, and accountability,” Ernst said. “That’s true of the open meeting law and true of the First Amendment.”

Isle La Motte Selectboard Chair Rusty Spaulding says they’ll address the comments at their next meeting and says the omitted names will be put back in the minutes before they’re published.

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