The recent addition of new rules to the state’s Open Meeting Law has triggered some unexpected reactions.
Those included the Vermont League of Cities and Towns warning its members that they may want to deactivate their municipal websites if they were not ready to comply with the new requirement that towns with websites must post meeting minutes online within five days.
“This affects every single committee, commission, board of trustees, library commissions, planning commissions, zoning boards of adjustment — all of whom operate pretty much independently of each other, and a lot of them that don’t have any full-time staff, certainly, and a lot of them that are not as technology-capable as the younger generation certainly is,” Steve Jeffrey, VLCT executive director, told Vermont Public Radio.
Some towns are worried about complying with the law. The town of Montgomery’s website is now a simple notice saying the site has been deactivated due to the new regulations. The note, still in place Saturday, says the website will return once the town is able to comply.
“Our intention was — I don’t know if we worded it wrong — we thought that wouldn’t even be effective until a later date,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations.
She was referring to a clause declaring nobody will be charged for violating the new provisions before 2015. “It would give them time to get used to it and figure out how they will do it.”
White said she was hearing a concern that while nobody would be charged, minutes missing from a website could still generate a civil complaint. The cure for that complaint, White said, would be to put the minutes up.
“I don’t think that every cemetery commission and DRB — I don’t think they necessarily have their meetings available within five days,” she said. “I don’t know that anybody ever challenged it and I don’t know anybody would challenge this.”
White pointed out that minutes are already supposed to be available after five days, and that if they are available in the town office, and the town also has a website, it should not be difficult to make them available online.
She said the manager in her own town of Putney plans to simply scan in handwritten notes and put those on the website as an image, if there is not time to type up the minutes within five days.
“I think people are panicking more than they need to, but I could be wrong,” White said. “If they’re supposed to be available, they could easily be scanned in. There’s certainly some panic we didn’t intend to cause and I am sorry it happened. I think we were caught off guard.”
A number of other towns are proceeding somewhat less drastically.
“We’re going to do our best to comply,” said Joe Zingale, administrator for Rutland Town. “No one’s ever come in and demanded a set (of meeting minutes) and said these aren’t produced on time. ... We’re going to try to do what we’ve always done. ... If people complain, then the town might do something different.”
That’s not to say the new law hasn’t raised concerns for the town. For example, Zingale said the logistics of preparing minutes in five days are troublesome. Meetings are on Tuesday, and Zingale said he has a lot on his plate and does not typically work the weekend.
“If you look at our minutes, they can be 15 pages, single-spaced,” he said. “I’ll try to have it done Monday, but my understanding is we’d be in violation.”
On top of that, Zingale said the law appeared to have missed the distinction that minutes are unofficial until the board in question approves them, typically at the next meeting. He also argued against putting up minutes prior to their approval by the Select Board.
“What if I had some grievous errors in there and it went up on the Web?” he asked. “There was an error once when it should have been ‘would not’ and I put ‘would.’ ... Just because I wrote them doesn’t make them the minutes.”
Zingale said the issue is a symptom of a larger problem, which is that the Open Meeting Law is geared more toward how government agencies with paid professional staffs conduct business, disregarding the volunteer, part-time nature of many town governments.
Representatives of other randomly chosen small towns said their towns would manage the best they could.
“The people who have committees are each getting their own password and they’ll be responsible for putting their minutes and agendas on the website,” said Winnia Valenza, assistant town clerk in Marshfield.
White said she still believes the changes are an improvement to the Open Meeting Law.
“It gives a step between not doing anything and a citizen having to sue,” she said, casting the law as a giving towns a “redo” when minutes are not prepared in time.
“The redo allows a citizen to file a complaint and get some action without suing a town,” White said.
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