This post is part of a series of posts on “Learning about town government” in my town of Cambridge, Vermont. Please see the link for context, a disclaimer, and a list of posts in this series.
This post is about Vermont’s open meeting law.
In the United States, every state and the federal government has some form of “sunshine” laws intended to create transparency and accountability in government, i.e., that government “operates in the sunshine.” Sometimes these laws are called “freedom of information” laws. These laws usually have two aspects: citizen access to government meetings and citizen access to government records. In Vermont, these laws are called the Open Meeting Law (OML) and the Public Records Act (PRA). This post is about OML.
OML applies to town government as follows: all official town boards, commissions, and committees, including subcommittees (called “public bodies”) are subject to OML. For example, OML applies to the selectboard. OML does not apply to individual officials. A meeting of the town clerk with other individuals does not come under OML (unless those involved constitute a quorum of a public body).
Following are the main points of OML:
- Meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. That is, the public must be allowed to attend meetings to watch and listen. The law allows for limited exceptions, such as contract negotiations and certain employee matters.
- Meetings must allow a “reasonable opportunity” for public input on matters being considered by the public body. The chair is charged with running an orderly meeting.
- Agendas must be prepared for all regular and special meetings of the public body, and posted at least 48 hours prior to a regular meeting and at least 24 hours prior to a special meeting.
- Minutes must be taken at all meetings, and posted not more than five calendar days after the meeting.
Those main points of OML seem straight-forward enough, but they are qualified by two important considerations:
First, with very limited exceptions, any gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of discussing the business of the public body, or for the purpose of taking action, is considered a “meeting” that must satisfy all of the above requirements. The Vermont Secretary of State advises that this includes discussions by any means (e.g., email, telephone, etc.), not just physical gatherings, even if those discussions are spread out over time (e.g., an email chain over several days). Group emails can easily constitute a “discussion” that is problematic under OML. The issue with such discussions is that they do not meet all of the above requirements. It is likely that such discussions do not meet any of the above requirements.
Second, the authority of any public body is a group authority. Authority is delegated to the group, not to any individual. A public body may exercise its authority only by acting as a group in a proper meeting – meaning that a meeting is held that satisfies all of the above requirements, a quorum is present, and there is a majority vote. An individual member of the public body has no special authority unless specifically authorized by law or action of the public body. A public body may delegate some of its authority to an individual, but it may do so only by acting in a proper meeting where that action is recorded in the minutes.
The goal of Vermont’s open meeting law is transparency and accountability in government, which is desirable. However, taking all of the above into account, OML has implications for the ability of public bodies in town government to be effective. Perhaps someday I’ll write more about that, but for now I’ll simply note the following aspect which relates to the theme of this series of posts (learning about town government) especially for new selectboard members. With the current 3-member selectboard in Cambridge, a quorum is two. No member of the selectboard may talk with any other member of the selectboard about anything to do with town business outside of a public meeting. (There are very limited exceptions to this rule.) Regular selectboard meetings in Cambridge are twice a month for about two hours at each meeting. That is not much time, and meeting agendas are full. This restriction on discussions between selectboard members not only limits how much and how quickly things can be done, but it also makes it difficult for a new selectboard member to learn the job. This situation will change with the expansion of the Cambridge selectboard to five members at the next annual town meeting on March 5, 2019. Then a quorum will be three, and it will be possible for a new selectboard member to visit with a veteran selectboard member in a 2-person conversation, outside of a public meeting, to learn the job.
There are many more details to OML than I have summarized above. OML is complicated, and the legislature is constantly tinkering with it. Both OML and PRA are found in 1 V.S.A Chapter 5. OML is in Subchapter 2 (§§ 310-314) and PRA is in Subchapter 3 (§§ 315-320).
For more information about “sunshine” laws in the United States in general, see this Wikipedia article:
Freedom of information in the United States
Click here to go to the initial post in this series: “Learning about town government.”