Saturday October 6, 2012

VERNON -- A town resident has sent a complaint to the state attorney general alleging that Selectboard members violated Vermont’s open meeting law.

Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting to appoint an interim police chief was not publicly warned and did not qualify as an "emergency" session, West Road resident Howard Fairman contends.

"Essentially, they had a secret meeting for a reason that was not provided for in the law," said Fairman, a frequent Selectboard critic and a former candidate for the governing body.

Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O’Donnell said the complaint is groundless.

"We checked and made sure we were carrying out the letter of the law," she said.

The board, at a regularly scheduled Monday meeting, appointed Richard Guthrie to fill in temporarily for Vernon police Chief Mary Beth Hebert, who is on medical leave.

But officials on Tuesday discovered that Guthrie, a retired police officer and former Brattleboro chief, no longer had the proper certification to work in Vernon.

So officials quickly contacted Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark and named him interim chief at an emergency meeting Tuesday evening. Clark has said the Vernon job will not require a full-time commitment and will not interfere with his duties as sheriff.

Hebert has criticized the move, saying it is unnecessary because her second-in-command, Sgt. Bruce Gauld, has kept the department running smoothly in her absence.

The way Clark’s appointment occurred also prompted a few complaints. Fairman, in correspondence with the attorney general’s office, said "no public notice at all was given before the ‘emergency’ meeting."

Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Christiane Howe sent out an e-mail about the meeting a few hours before it began. But Fairman says that does not count.

"The law says, ‘It shall be posted publicly,’" he said.

Howe’s e-mail also cited a Selectboard handbook rule:

"Emergency meetings may be held by the Selectboard without public announcement, meaning no notice posting or member notification is necessary. However, some sort of notice must be made as soon as possible before an emergency meeting," Howe wrote.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos quoted a statute saying emergency meetings "may be held only when necessary to respond to an unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention by the public body."

Condos, in an e-mail to the Reformer, said his interpretation is that "there is very little reason for an ‘emergency’ meeting short of an act of God."

Fairman contends there was no "unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention" that should have prompted an emergency meeting in Vernon on Tuesday.

"Sgt. Bruce Gauld had been and remained acting chief of police since July 25, when Chief Hebert was taken ill," he wrote to the attorney general’s office.

O’Donnell, though, said the board had to act.

"There were issues that were of extreme importance that needed to be dealt with," she said.

For example, she said the police department’s staffing had been depleted by Hebert’s long-term absence.

"There’s not enough staff there," O’Donnell said. "And that means people are being paid overtime."

Fairman labels the reasons for the meeting "bogus." And he noted in his complaint that violating the meeting law is a misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $500.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.