Halifax vote called into question

HALIFAX — Some residents worry that confusion over Open Meeting Law may have influenced last week's narrow vote rejecting the expansion of the Select Board.

"I would be surprised if it didn't," Marilyn Allen told the Reformer. "Those of us who have done the legwork to have that put on Australian ballot — the issue of enlarging the Select Board — have struggled for a number of years and we are always shut down when it's just included in the Town Meeting articles because either it's later in the day or whatever."

The article was rejected 98-95 last Tuesday. Town Clerk Patricia Dow previously told the Reformer she knew it would be a "really close" vote.

Some residents say Select Board members and town officials at an informational meeting before Town Meeting made it seem as though Open Meeting Law had been revised by the Legislature and that two board members could already meet without falling afoul of the law.

"It was voted out of committee," Select Board Chairman Lewis Sumner told the Reformer. "They're supposed to be voting on it this week. We have every indication that it's going to change."

One of the chief arguments for proponents of a bigger board is that two members on a five-member board can collaborate or discuss issues outside of a warned meeting.

Cara Cheyette said she initiated a petition last year to have an article about the board's size decided by Australian ballot instead of voice vote.

"I was motivated to do that because I know that lots of people vote — but lots of people aren't able to go to Town Meeting and I thought it was a question that everyone in town ought to be able to weigh in on," she told the Reformer. "This year, members of the Halifax Democratic Committee decided to initiate the petition to place the article on the warning."

Jenny Prosser, general counsel and director of municipal assistance, told Cheyette that the bill making its way through the Legislature does not contain language that would allow two members of a public body to discuss board business outside of a warned meeting, although some members of the House Government Operations Committee had concerns about how three-member boards are currently affected by the definition of "meeting."

"Rather, the open meeting law portion of H.910 proposes to define 'business of the public body,'" Prosser wrote in an email. "Under current law, if a quorum of the members of a public body gathers to discuss business, that gathering is a meeting that must be open to the public. H.910 adds a new definition: 'Business of the public body' would mean 'the public body's governmental functions, including any matter over which the public body has supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power.'"

She said the bill, which will be debated and could be amended on the House floor this week, is also meant to "clarify that certain activities do not constitute a 'meeting' ... a quorum of a public body would be able to attend a duly warned meeting of another public body without triggering the Open Meeting Law's public notice, minutes, and other requirements, so long as the attending public body does not take action on its business at social gatherings, trainings, and media events."

If approved by the House, the Senate will then debate the bill.

"So, the text of the bill is certainly subject to change at this point," Prosser wrote.

Gretchen Becker consulted the Secretary of State's website and sent the statute to the Reformer.

"Whenever a quorum (a majority) of a public body is gathered to discuss the business of the board or to take action, the open meeting laws apply," it reads. "This means that if a majority of a board find themselves together at a social function they must take care not to discuss the business of the board."

Becker told the Reformer, "I think the board should clarify this."

With such a close vote at Town Meeting, Cheyette believes the issue is important to address.

"I don't know how widely this incorrect information was disseminated but the way that people in the room, at both meetings, were nodding in agreement and voicing their assent," she said, referring to the informational meeting and annual Town Meeting, "the impression was that it had been a topic of discussion around town and among town officials."

Cheyette wonders whether board members have been "operating under this incorrect reading of the law." Sumner said board members have not had any two-person meetings without warning them.

Allen told the Reformer she spoke with another resident who was upset over the issue and suggested they should demand a recount.

"We thought about that," Allen said. "The recount will probably come out the same. I don't think it was in the counting of the ballots."

She said the law had been misrepresented and wonders whether another vote could be held during the primaries.

"I don't really think it changed one person," Sumner said of the discussion.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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