MONTPELIER -- A House panel is creating a new penalty structure for violations of Vermont's open meeting laws and finalizing changes that would clarify how state law applies to electronic meetings and online collaboration.

Proposed new language in the statute also would require public bodies convicted of violating the law to reimburse plaintiffs for legal costs. Currently, that option applies to public records violations, but not to open meeting violations.

Lawmakers have tweaked public notice requirements for open meetings, as well as carve-outs for executive session and pending litigation.

Chair Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, said after a committee meeting Thursday that she hopes to move H.497 out of her committee next week.

Digital upgrades

The update is meant, in part, to clarify how state law applies to electronic meetings, such as teleconferencing and online collaborations.

Lawmakers want to make it easier for public bodies - such as school boards, selectboards and even their own summer study committees - to work together from different places and even at different times. They are trying to maintain accountability requirements in the law while creating more flexibility for boards.

Nicole Mace, general counsel for the Vermont School Boards Association, says she frequently fields questions from school board members who are unsure of the legal parameters for their electronic communications.

"I think it's an emerging area that needs to be thought through carefully," she said. "Our goal is to make things clear, simple and yet responsive to the new environment, and to operate with it in mind at all times that all boards are accountable to the public."

Lawmakers' first order of business Thursday morning was to be clear about what constitutes a "meeting."

They agreed administrative tasks such as scheduling, agenda-setting and distributing materials like a board packet should not trigger open meeting protocols. But if members of a public body were to start marking up a proposed new policy in a shared document on Google Drive, for example, that likely would constitute a meeting.

Rep. Maida Townsend, D-South Burlington, said collaborative drafting online sounds a lot like the work a committee would otherwise do together in person - even if people work online at different times of the day.

"It would need to be treated as a meeting," Townsend said. "I think it's perfectly OK for this kind of thing to happen, so long as it's considered a meeting," she said.

In such cases, the public should be notified in advance just like any other meeting, lawmakers said.

Committee members are still trying to clarify how an online platform should work, how to track changes and how to make the versions available to the public.

In the event of committee members' co-drafting a document to prepare for a meeting, a clause might be added to prevent them from coming to any decision before the official meeting in which the public could participate.

Penalties and attorney's fees

H.497 would also change the penalty for violations.

Public bodies convicted of violating the open meeting laws could be responsible for paying the plaintiff's attorney's fees under the proposal. Currently, only the public records statute contains a mechanism for plaintiffs to recover legal fees.

A plaintiff couldn't go straight to court under the bill. A written allegation that the law was violated would first have to be submitted to the public body in question.

The public body would then have five days to respond and another 14 days to "cure" the violation, if it doesn't choose to ignore or dispute the charge. A cure could include either ratifying any action taken during the improperly held meeting, or declaring the action void.

The public body also may have to take action to prevent future violations - though lawmakers have not yet decided what actions would satisfy this requirement.

Executive session and pending litigation

The committee is considering clarifying language to remind public officials that executive sessions - which the public is not permitted to attend - can only be held "(a)fter making a specific finding that premature general public knowledge would place the public body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage."

Language in the bill states that merely claiming that public knowledge of the discussion would disadvantage the parties is not sufficient. Officials must present a clear finding to that effect.

If a public body wants to enter an executive session because of pending litigation, it must be imminent, according to the bill.

Notices and agenda changes

Some tweaks also may be in store for agendas.

Committee members want to require that agendas be posted 48 hours before regularly scheduled meetings and 24 hours before special meetings.

They considered at length how agendas might be changed, and whether topics might be added or deleted from meeting schedules and in the end decided to allow additions or deletions of new topics at the start of a meeting.