An informed citizenry is a key element in ensuring the success of the democratic process. It is one of the important checks and balances that keeps our government officials honest and allows citizens to make an intelligent decision when voting on budgets, municipal bonds and other important issues.
That was the intent behind the Vermont open-meeting law that went into effect last week.
"We have a responsibility to our citizens," Secretary of State Jim Condos said last week as he traveled the state to provide education on the new law. "These new requirements were implemented to make it easier for Vermont's citizens to access their government."
But even as he signed the new bill into law in May, Gov. Peter Shumlin expressed "serious concerns" about parts of it, including a do-over provision that allows government bodies a chance to fix violations without penalty. Nevertheless, Shumlin wrote in a statement to lawmakers that he was signing the legislation "in recognition of the time it has taken to arrive at consensus on the positive aspects of this bill. Those improvements include coverage of legal costs for those who have to sue to gain access to a public meeting."
On this particular issue, however, the Vermont Press Association argues that the open-meeting law is weaker than an update to the public records law passed three years ago, the Associated Press reports. The earlier law requires violators to pay the legal fees racked up by complaining parties who prevail in court. The open-meeting law leaves the question of violators paying legal fees up to the judge.
The issue of who pays the legal fees is often a key tipping point in access-to-records or open-meetings fights. The prospect of steep legal bills often has deterred individuals and small newspapers from pursuing such claims.
In June Steve Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, defended the new law, saying it's fair that the open-meeting law is less strict than the public records law. Volunteer town boards often make the decision on whether to hold public meetings, while town clerks and other paid officials typically handle public records decisions, Jeffrey told the AP.
Now that the law has taken effect, however, local officials across the state say it has some unintended consequences that are prompting some communities, upon the VLCT's recommendation, to take down their websites.
The Vermont Digital Economy Project says Vermonters expect municipal websites to be a primary source for town communication, but some town officials say the new law's requirement that minutes be posted online within five days of a meeting will create excessive burdens, the Burlington Free Press reports. Others fear that if posting deadlines are missed, actions taken during those meetings could be ruled invalid.
The open-meeting law applies to every municipal selectboard, council, board of trustees, municipal commission, committee and subcommittee. Putting excessive burdens on the volunteers who serve on these boards could discourage them from volunteering in the first place. And as for requiring paid staffers to perform these duties, many of Vermont's smaller towns have part-time clerks and secretaries, and limited budgets to extend those hours or pay excessive fines.
"Any who do not comply with the changes can be fined, and we have advised if they do not believe they can comply with these new changes to the law, they should deactivate their websites to avoid prosecution," Jeffrey told the Free Press.
Misdemeanor charges and fines to a governing body responsible would begin to apply for those in violation starting July 1, 2015.
Still, Vermont Press Association President John Flowers said the public should have quick access to meeting minutes, and said the association supports the five-day digital posting rule, the Free Press reports.
"We were extremely concerned by this recommendation and have taken a strong stance against this," Flowers said of the VLCT suggestion that towns deactivate websites. "The digital posting requirement was the one silver lining in a bill that we otherwise had objected to."
Obviously the Reformer supports the requirement that towns provide access to all meeting minutes and other important documents, either at the town offices or online. Having towns take down their websites for fear of violating the new law is a step in the wrong direction. At the same time, however, we sympathize with the limited budgets and resources of the small towns we cover.
Vermont lawmakers say they may revisit the legislation next year. We hope they do because obviously there are some glitches in the law that need to be tweaked, such as allowing towns a bit more time to post documents online. For example, instead of the five-day rule, this provision could be changed to require that minutes from one meeting be posted online prior to the next meeting of the board or committee in question.
As long as citizens can still have immediate access to these documents at the town offices, waiting an extra few days for the online posting seems reasonable.