Most people who read their local newspaper are grateful for the coverage. Sometimes, it is quaint and folksy. Other times it is gritty. Only on occasion does our local news coverage border on scary, which is a blessing.
Among those articles there are regularly what we refer to as “meeting stories.” We attend these meetings to chronicle the decisions that are being made by elected (and appointed) officials on our behalf. One of the greatest tragedies of a shrinking newsroom is: We don’t have enough reporters to be at all the meetings.
But this time of year, we’re around. We are upholding that tenet of the public trust by serving as the watchdog. Budgets require it. How your tax dollars are spent is a laborious process for towns and cities to hammer out, but it is equally mind-numbing for journalists — most of whom are assigned to multiple communities. That’s a lot of numbers, percentage increases (rarely decreases) and line items to keep track of.
And every winter, in the months leading up to Town Meeting Day, when budgets are being presented to boards, hearings are scheduled, and warnings and ballots are put into place, the newsroom is always abuzz over three points of interest.
First, there are rarely members of the public attending the meetings. The level of engagement is often limited to a gadfly or two (usually former public officials), the PEG access camera person and a reporter. That’s a generalization, of course, but many officials reading this are nodding in acknowledgment that the public, in large part, is not involved in how budgets are formed.
Second, the town budget of 50 (or even 25) years ago is not the same as the budget of today. There are state requirements here and fees there. Capital equipment often requires complicated financing (contingent on voter approval) and, heaven forbid, the calls for a bond issue. Especially on school boards, as soon as the superintendent starts talking about the CLA or the debt service, even the most devoted board members start to squirm in their seats. Running a community is an education, and being a layperson who is expected to grasp more than “health insurance rates are up” and “enrollment is down” can be a real challenge at a time where the state — and most communities — are not flush with cash. (Just look at how grand lists have changed in towns and cities outside of Chittenden County.)
Third, despite efforts to the contrary, many town officials either don’t follow the state’s Open Meeting Laws, or they choose not to.
Which brings us back to the watchdog.
“Open government is the best government.” It sounds good. It sounds like it is in the best interest of every taxpayer; it represents a transparency and structure that allows for open discussion — a public vetting of issues — a public vote, and the proper distribution of outcomes to voters (the taxpayers).
And yet, reporters attending meetings often return to the newsroom, consulting the secretary of state, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns or state statute for the state’s open meeting law (1 VSA §§ 310-314) and the public records law (1 VSA §§ 315-320).
“These laws implement the command of Chapter I, Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution that officers of government are ‘trustees and servants’ of the people and are ‘at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.’”
And what every good reporter knows is that “Every municipal board, council, commission and committees (legally defined as ‘public bodies’) of a municipality is required to comply with the Open Meeting Law. The Law applies when there is (1) a quorum of a public body; (2) involved in a discussion or taking action; and (3) the subject matter of the discussion is one over which the body has authority or responsibility.”
And yet many town officials do not know it. Meetings need to be warned. And when meetings have concluded, drafts of the minutes need to be posted in short order. Boards can’t go behind closed doors to discuss business unless it is under the provisions of executive session. And those provisions are: a personnel matter, a real estate deal, or a contract negotiation. And no action can be taken during an executive session.
You would be amazed just how often executive session is illegally used, even though the Secretary of State travels the state regularly to educate communities on how to see the process through correctly.
And all meetings.
Where journalists cannot attend a meeting, public access television stations (Vermont has 25 covering more than 80% of the state) are recording or live streaming many of them. In Vermont, they are good partners in open government.
Local coverage of news is crucial — not just for what decisions are being made on behalf of voters and taxpayers, it is crucial for keeping our elected and appointed officials on task.