BRATTLEBORO — After some controversy over amending August meeting minutes to include contentious exchanges between Windham Southeast School District Board members, a new debate is brewing.
In his clerk’s report at Tuesday’s board meeting, board member Tim Maciel said the board is committed by law to follow Robert’s Rules of Order.
“We simply do not follow Robert’s Rules in minutes where it says who says what,” he said. “Robert’s is pretty unequivocal on this.”
Attributing in the minutes what is said in meetings to individual people tends to “personalize and politicize the discussions,” Maciel said.
“In fact, who says what is irrelevant,” he said. “It is the decisions of the body that is important. Discussions are merely a means to the end, not an end itself.”
Maciel said if attributed comments are included in minutes, meeting participants might become “intimidated or guarded” and not want to share their true opinion. He described the point of minutes being to create an official record of the board’s actions.
“This purpose becomes clouded over and obscured when irrelevant material is included,” he said. “The detailed minutes make it hard to sort out the actions taken from the verbiage. They absorb a lot of staff time and can result in the body’s taking too much time to correct the record.”
Maciel said the material also can provide “fodder” for opponents if the board finds itself involved in a lawsuit. He suggested speakers at meetings could still request certain statements be put into the record.
Board member Shaun Murphy said the minutes provide information for people who don’t go to the meetings or watch them on Brattleboro Community Television.
“I know there have been some specific requests to make sure that the minutes are extremely accurate for the whole meeting,” he said. “In these difficult times that we’ve had, to have a written record, I think, is very important.”
In an email to the Reformer, Murphy praised Wendy Levy for her objectivity. Levy records the minutes for the board.
“This is not about how an individual takes minutes. This simply is a reference to Robert’s Rules,” board member Deborah Stanford said. “This isn’t personalized at all.”
Levy challenged the conversation as being out of order since the topic wasn’t warned on the meeting agenda. Board member Lana Dever said she believes the public would be better served if the subject is put on an upcoming agenda, and Board Chairwoman Kelly Young agreed to put it on the next one.
In an interview Wednesday, Levy said, “It was really hard for me to speak up in a meeting where I have no standing, where I’m an at-will employee in a state where people can fire someone for no reason.”
“There’s also a gender component.” she said. “As much as I might be fairly bad ass, I’m still a female calling out a male in public. That doesn’t always end well.”
Levy said she believes Maciel is “focusing on the messenger because he doesn’t like the message.” She views the proposal as retaliation after publicly saying she feels the board might have violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law as an oversight if the board entered into executive session without a proper vote, which was part of the discussion on amending the Aug. 9 meeting minutes. She also had said the Aug. 9 minutes she submitted, without board member Michelle Luetjen Green’s amendment, were the result of a conversation with Maciel, and she asked never to be put in the position of leaving out information again. Maciel declined to respond.
After submitting the draft minutes without information about the executive session, Levy said she no longer had the power to amend them. In an earlier interview, she expressed concern that no one had been dealing with Green’s repeated attempts to do so. Last month, the board ultimately voted 5-4 to approve amending the minutes as Green proposed to include a contentious exchange between board members.
Maciel’s call to change the way minutes are taken “doesn’t look good for voters,” Levy said. “He’s demanding of the board recorder to leave out information that voters have a right to know, and he’s doing it in a meeting where it hasn’t been warned and people don’t know that this is going to come up for conversation.”
Maciel told the Reformer he feels sorry Levy has taken it personally.
“This is just to get us back to Robert’s,” he said. “My call for meeting minutes to adhere more closely to Robert’s Rules was not at all retaliatory. For a very long time, we’ve been straying from Robert’s Rules, particularly in attributing names to what was said.”
Levy said she met with her boss, Superintendent Mark Speno, when she felt board members were attacking Green for her efforts to increase transparency on their decision making processes. Levy described worrying she might be targeted next. She wonders why the change to minute taking is needed right now, recounting being praised by Maciel in the past for a job well done.
When recording the minutes, Levy looks at how the board is moving toward making decisions via their conversations. That, she said, includes dissent. She noted people like to know costs and data. She also takes minutes for other governmental bodies.
Unsure if she can be at the School Board meeting when the issue is discussed again, Levy said she needs to “keep my wits about me so I can record the minutes.”
“But I do have things to say, definitely,” she said. “I want to hear what the board members have to say. I mean, you know, they are their minutes.”
Levy plans to submit a written statement to the board chairwoman and request that it be read into record.