BELLOWS FALLS -- The Vermont Attorney General's Office has sent a letter to the chairwoman of the Rockingham Free Public Library Board of Trustees, informing her of multiple instances of Open Meeting Law violations at her meetings this year.
Assistant Attorney General William B. Reynolds told Janice Mitchell-Love she violated the state's Open Meeting Laws, though there is no reason to believe she did so intentionally. Reynolds wrote the letter in response to complaints the Attorney General's office had received from Library Trustees Elayne Clift and Carolyn Frisa and former Trustee Deb Wetzel.
He said he reviewed both of Mitchell-Love's responses and the materials she submitted before reaching his conclusion. Mitchell-Love told the Reformer much of what Clift told Reynolds was inaccurate or taken out of context and she has made sure to rectify any instances where she learned Open Meeting Law was violated.
According to Reynolds, Clift alleged that Mitchell-Love instructed board committee meetings to be held without warning the public or the full board and told the personnel board to limit attendance to a maximum of four trustees in order to remain below the board's quorum of five. Clift also claimed the trustees improperly passed a motion to close the library at a special meeting on Wednesday, May 1.
He also told Mitchell-Love there were numerous instances where she indicated committee meetings are not open to the public and should not be warned. He quoted an e-mail from Mitchell-Love to now-terminated Library Director Célina Houlné and Trustee Deborah Wright as stating, "Personnel Committee meetings are not public meetings -- ever -- so they should not be posted ... At no time can five or more trustees -- which is a quorum -- attend a committee meeting without it being warned as a trustees meeting. If five or more trustees show up for a meeting, they have to either leave or the committee meeting must be postponed and/or canceled because it is an illegal meeting."
Reynolds said Vermont's Open Meeting Law states "[a]ll meetings of a public body are declared to be open to the public at all times."
He also quoted an e-mail in which Mitchell-Love appoints Policy Committee A and Policy Committee B and says the two unassigned trustees could attend the meetings of one of those committees to avoid butting "up against the quorum issue. But he states Mitchell-Love's understanding of the Open Meeting Law is incorrect.
"If a quorum of the members of one of these committees gathers to discuss its business or take action, the meeting must be warned, minutes must be taken, the public must have an opportunity to express its opinions, and the standards for entering into executive session must be met," he wrote. "Creating committees with less than five trustees did not avoid a violation of the Open Meeting Law as there was still a ‘meeting' of a ‘public body' when those committees met."
Clift also alleges Mitchell-Love instructed that a meeting's official minutes should contain only votes taken, not discussion. Reynolds stressed that the Open Meeting Law requires minutes to cover "all topics and motions that arise at the meeting and give a true indication of the business of the meeting."
Mitchell-Love acknowledged a clear violation of the law that occurred in the spring when the trustees improperly passed a motion to close the library by a 4-2 vote. A minimum of five votes is needed for a motion to pass and Mitchell-Love said a special emergency meeting was scheduled immediately to rectify the problem. The trustees then voted 5-1 to close the library -- a move that sparked controversy in the village.
Mitchell-Love said the trustees are not paid for their work and do the best they can. She said Open Meeting Law training was offered at Rockingham Town Hall, but library trustees were not told about it.
"We have training from library representative Amy Howlett [with the Vermont Department of Libraries] one hour a year, but it is not to the depth we need," she said.
Clift said she was disappointed in Reynolds' letter, calling it "weak." She said there should have been a reprimand for the violations. Wetzel said Reynold's conclusion that Mitchell-Love's violations were unintentional was "a little over the top for me" but said his letter "is what it is."
Wetzel's complaint -- which was filed along with her husband, Adam -- was in regards to Mitchell-Love denying Steve Geller, Houlné's husband, the right to speak at a public meeting because he is not a resident of Rockingham. Reynolds wrote that the public must be "given a reasonable opportunity to express its opinion on matters considered by the public body during the meeting as long as order is maintained" and Vermont state statutes do not limit that right to residents of the town where the public body resides."
Mitchell-Love told the Reformer she realized silencing Geller was a violation of the Open Meeting Law soon after doing it and never did it again. She also said these complaints are coming from members of a small group of people unhappy with the governance of the library and the termination of Houlné, who was fired in September. Mitchell-Love specifically mentioned Clift's complaints, which she said were misleading.
"Mrs. Clift loves the library as much as we do," she said. "But she does, to me, seem to have an agenda."
Frisa's complaint had to do with Mitchell-Love allegedly warning a special meeting improperly and discussing two topics in executive session when they should have been discussed in public. According to Reynolds' letter, Vermont's Open Meeting Law states "[t]he time, place and purpose of a special meeting subject to this section shall be publicly announced at least 24 hours before the meeting" and all municipal bodies must post notices of special meetings in or near the municipal clerk's office as well as in at least two other public places in the municipality at least 24 hours before the meeting is slated to begin.
The two topics questionably discussed in executive session concerned Frisa's eligibility to serve as a trustee (because she is not a Rockingham resident) and whether a comment posted on Facebook was acceptable trustee behavior. Reynolds said the Open Meeting Law allows a public body to consider "the appointment, employment or evaluation of a public officer or employee" in executive session and there are no facts sufficient enough to determine if the discussions violated the law. He added, however, that Mitchell-Love cured any possible violation by agreeing to discuss the topics in open session.
Reynolds said violations of the law carry with them a $500 fine, but someone would first have to go before a jury in a criminal trial and there would need to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt to get to that point.
"The intent of the letter," he told the Reformer, "is to provide the public body -- in this case the Rockingham Free Public Library Board of Trustees -- with an understanding that: 1) they violated the law, 2) how they violated and 3) to provide guidance on what the law says."
He also suggested the trustees seek guidance from the Vermont Secretary of State's Office or the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
Clift said the next trustees meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 7.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.