BRATTLEBORO — The Select Board has acknowledged violating open meeting law when entering into executive sessions about emergency medical services, but the town attorney said the board can cure the violation without revoking its contract with Golden Cross Ambulance.
The board said the violation occurred because it did not explain that premature public knowledge of the contract discussions would place someone at a disadvantage.
“I think anyone who knows me personally knows that I care deeply about process and ensuring that we are following our statutory duty and following the advice of the League of Cities and Towns to the best of our ability,” Board Chairman Ian Goodnow said at Tuesday’s board meeting. “I also will say that I believe what this error is, is an error in form and not an error in substance, and that our actions taken to move into executive session were absolutely for contract negotiations that would have put us at a severe disadvantage had we discussed them in the public.”
In April, the town announced it would be splitting ways with Rescue Inc. due to contract disputes, after a 56-year relationship.
Bob Oeser of Brattleboro, who filed the notice of violation with the town, said he believes discussions on policy occurred in executive sessions and they should have happened in open session.
On Friday, the town received the notice of the alleged violation. The board is required to respond to the notice within 10 days, so an agenda item was added to Tuesday’s meeting.
“The statute allows you up to 14 days to cure the violation,” Town Attorney Bob Fisher said. “From my perspective, you don’t need to wait that 14 days and the idea would be to hit it right on the head and do it tonight.”
Fisher said the Vermont League of Cities of Towns recommends publicly acknowledging the violation, and the board can cure the violation by ratifying decisions made in executive sessions, then change the way it states its reasoning for going into executive session.
He doesn’t believe the town needs to revoke its action to contract with Golden Cross Ambulance, like Oeser’s notice called for, because that decision occurred during a public portion of a meeting and there’s case law that says towns can ratify actions if they fail to comply with provisions of open meeting law.
Former board members Kate O’Connor and Dora Bouboulis also raised concerns about the board talking about policy changes during executive sessions.
The board unanimously authorized the interim town manager to send a letter to Oeser acknowledging the violation and indicating its intention to cure the issue, and ratified its actions taken to enter executive session March 15, April 5 and April 19. Then it went into executive session, regarding a mutual aid agreement.
Drew Hazelton, chief of operations at Rescue Inc., told the Reformer there are things that need to be worked out with the town before his group would provide services under a mutual aid agreement. He didn’t know what to make of the Select Board coming out of Tuesday’s executive session with no action.
On Monday, the Rescue Inc. Board of Trustees met with Select Board members to discuss the town’s request for mutual aid.
“This draft agreement,” the trustees said in a news release issued Monday after the meeting, “indicated that Rescue should provide an unspecified amount of coverage, which they define as ‘uncompensated mutual aid.’ During this meeting, Rescue Inc. and representatives of the Select Board had a very frank conversation about the damaged nature of the relationship between the Town and Rescue.”
Hazelton said Rescue Inc. is not willing to provide uncompensated services to the town and there aren’t any meetings scheduled between the two parties at this time.
At the Select Board meeting, Fire Chief Len Howard said he expects to meet with representatives of AP Triton on Thursday about starting a study aimed at figuring out the viability of the joint fire/EMS model. Golden Cross is anticipated to help the town prepare for providing the service on its own.