Kudos to the Plainfield Select Board for suspending gatherings in the various town buildings. Unfortunately, they went a step too far by barring all town committees from meeting for the foreseeable future. Their rationale stems from a myopic reading of the Vermont Open Meetings Law. These are the various protocols under which government bodies call meetings and interact with the public. The purpose of these rules is to ensure an open deliberative process and avoid back-room dealing.
Sadly, the select board’s reading of the law brings to mind Amtrak’s old approach to autumn daylight-savings-time shift. At the anointed hour, trains would be halted dead in the tracks and all power would be cut. Uniformed passengers were left sitting in the dark in the middle of nowhere for exactly 60 minutes.
As an analogy, town business shouldn’t be kept in a twilight zone of inaction for weeks at a time. Are citizens really hostage to legislation designed to safeguard the public interest? No.
Let me quote from the statute: “An emergency meeting may be held only when necessary to respond to an unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention by the public body. (1. VSA 312 2 © (3).” This section further relaxes the stringent public notification requirements. Typically, this would mean a natural disaster whereby authorization needs to be made to expend funds to remediate the crisis. Unfortunately, we are not living in typical times. It would seem obvious the current statute did not anticipate everyone self-isolating to avoid spreading a pandemic. The spirit of the legislation involved informing the public to the greatest extent possible.
In that vein, this emergency meeting provision must be seen in a larger context. It strongly suggests the law encourages leaders to suspend regular order to address community needs. Of course, the danger is municipal officials would use this provision for nefarious ends. But one must consider the alternative: What if those same leaders forfeit the interest of the town in favor of upholding the letter of the law? As a member of several town committees, I can say that indefinitely suspending all deliberations for the foreseeable future is not in the town’s best interest. There are time-sensitive matters that need to be addressed.
How to proceed? Obviously, there needs to be adherence to the governor’s wise choice of limiting the size of gatherings, but this does not preclude using easily accessible group meeting software to accomplish the task. It seems there could be various work arounds that would push the envelope in terms of meeting every aspect of the law. But, to give an analogy, it is doubtful a blown taillight should prevent a first-response vehicle from answering an emergency call. Instead, our select board is standing in the fire station reciting traffic ordinances in defense of not deploying the ambulance.
What are we to make of the flurry of letters back and forth between select board chair and the town’s hazard mitigation committee? The members of this town body are desperate to meet to deliberate on a variety of pending matters. Most towns would welcome volunteers going to extraordinary lengths to meet in an emergency.
Not this select board. Here is a quote from one of the numerous emails exchanged between members of the committee attempting to organize a meeting and the Select Board Chair Sasha Thayer: “It’s not a question of can we devise some way to meet electronically? Meetings are suspended until further notice.”
The lifeblood of a democracy is citizen engagement. These times demand leadership (that) has the perspective of understanding dire times demand out-of-the-box solutions.
If the select board and its chair are incapable of mastering the new way of doing business, they needs to step aside for the greater good of the community. The townsfolk deserve better than to sit in the dark in the middle of nowhere waiting for the engineer to switch on the power at the properly anointed hour. We need thoughtful action from concerned citizens rather than obtuse lectures from academic legal eagles.
Bram Towbin lives in Plainfield. He is a former Select Board chair.