BARRE — Mayor Thomas Lauzon isn’t happy with the amended open meetings law that recently went into effect, saying the law is getting “out of hand.”
On July 1, the open meetings rules in Vermont underwent some changes, including the addition of a provision saying that minutes and agendas have to be posted online by every board, committee and subcommittee in a municipality. Agendas have to be posted 48 hours in advance of a meeting or 24 hours in advance of an emergency meeting. The minutes of meetings that have been held are required to be posted online within five days of the meeting.
“It’s out of hand. … I am absolutely all for transparency, but it just seems like we’ve gone crazy with this,” Lauzon said at a regularly scheduled city council meeting Tuesday. “If you’re taking action on behalf of the city, I absolutely agree it needs to be on an agenda. It needs to be warned.”
“But, you know, we have a cow pasture committee. They’re wonderful people. They’re volunteers. They’re not expending any money on behalf of the city. They have no authority to.”
City Clerk Carol Dawes said she had prepared templates for minutes and agendas for the city’s committees to use to make the transition easier. She will also be meeting with every committee to make sure they know what they have to do. Municipalities have a year to come into compliance with the new provisions in the law.
Lauzon asked Dawes how much extra work this provision will cost her. She estimated it would take her around 30 minutes every week to receive the minutes and agendas from committees, scan them and post them on the city website.
“That’s 26 hours a year,” Lauzon said, adding that can be a burden for municipalities that are constantly trying to do more with less.
Council member Paul Poirier, who also serves in the Legislature as an Independent in the House of Representatives, said he’s been told the law would be addressed again in January when the Legislature is back in session.
“I think this bill was passed in haste. … I reluctantly voted in favor of it because I believe in transparency,” Poirier said, adding that it’s one of those bills that sounds great while discussing it in the committee room, but issues arise when it’s actually put into action.
Those issues are being faced in towns throughout central Vermont. While officials in Montpelier and Northfield say the new requirements for posting documents online won’t have much of an impact on them, other smaller towns are feeling the pressure.
Plainfield Town Clerk Linda Wells said it’s going to take a while to get that town’s boards and committees up to speed on the new requirements. She said the town’s website is set up so that the chairs of the committees can put their own agendas and minutes on the site.
Wells handles the Select Board’s agenda and minutes and she seconded Dawes’ estimation of an extra half hour of work each week being added onto her plate. She also said the Select Board hadn’t been posting its agendas to the website, so that’s a new task for them as well. Following board meetings, Wells will have to post two copies of the minutes — a first, draft version of unapproved minutes and another approved version later on.
Bobbi Brimblecombe, the town clerk in Marshfield, agreed that the new provision in the open meetings law will mean more work for her.
“But I understand the purpose behind it,” she said. “I think anything we can do to make the public more informed, we should be doing that.”
Brimblecombe also has the town’s website set up so that town officers can put up their own agendas and minutes.
Even if it makes more work for her, Brimblecombe says, “I’m always in favor of transparency. Plus, I think, not all the boards were really getting their agendas out there on time. Maybe people weren’t as informed as they could be as to what’s going on, so now people, if they have access to the Internet, they can’t say that they didn’t know what was happening.”
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