Open meeting laws: Fun for everyone

I have a habit of loudly and dramatically announcing that certain aspects of government function are “the cornerstone of democracy.” (I put the fun in government function!)

The fact is, the reason our government works, when it works, is that there are statutory measures in place that keep the balance, not only between branches of government, but also between the government and the people it serves. One of my favorite elements — one might say it’s the cornerstone of democracy — are Vermont’s open meeting laws.

Open meeting laws exist to maintain government transparency and make as much information possible accessible to as many people as possible. When you read newspaper or Front Porch Forum warnings about upcoming meetings, you’re benefiting from these laws. The town is required to conduct meetings out in the open, post minutes from meetings, and allow the public to attend; in Montpelier, we livestream all meetings and post them on YouTube in perpetuity. There are also written records of these meetings.

If you want to read all about it, this link to the Vermont Secretary of State’s website explains these laws in detail.

Public access to decision-making means that government officials can be held accountable for their words and actions as they go about their daily business. Tune into CSPAN or a Vermont House session and you might fall asleep, or you might learn about your elected officials and how they operate on your behalf. In my case, you will also see me fidgeting in my chair. It’s been a lifelong struggle to sit still.

If you can observe and participate in meetings, your voice is heard, and your opinions have to be considered. Just as your vote speaks for you (Is voting the cornerstone of democracy? Yes!) your presence in and observation of public meetings and government functions is speaking quietly, saying, “This matters to me, and therefore, people who are working on my behalf, this should matter to you, too.”

Sometimes there are exceptions. When the selectboard goes into executive session, which means the proceedings are exempt from public view and participation, and there are no public minutes available, it’s because there’s information being shared that’s not appropriate for everyone to know. This could be a personnel issue or a legal matter for the town or state that’s protected by statute.

There’s a special committee that convened this summer to investigate and hear testimony regarding some sheriffs who possibly behaved inappropriately while on the job. At first, when I heard that much of the testimony would be taken in executive session, I was troubled because I thought the proceedings should be as open and fair as possible. But given the personal nature of some of the accusations and the fact that victims of alleged misconduct would be testifying, I realized that sometimes, protecting the people who are involved should take precedence over our right to know things.

I recently signed a letter along with 15 other legislators asking the Vermont State Board of Education to make their meetings compliant with the state’s open meeting laws. The board of education also heard from the state’s Office of Racial Equity, the Vermont Education Equity Alliance and the Vermont Superintendents Association expressing the same concerns as our letter. Though their meetings were available to the public, it was only by phone, and any visual materials being shared during the meeting were inaccessible to participants who were listening in. No system is perfect, and there’s always room for improvement, but as a result of these letters, the board of education is discussing meeting accessibility at their next meeting, which will be available for all to join via Teams (which is like Zoom).

It’s encouraging to me that organizations are responsive when these matters are brought to their attention; you can take the woman out of journalism but you can’t take the journalist out of the woman. I’ve always thought, the more transparency the better, and the more people want to keep things behind closed doors, the more we should be asking why.

Last session, we extended COVID-prompted open meeting law changes like Zoom access and remote participation just for another year. As the coming legislative session approaches, I hope to revisit these laws once again, see if we can make some of them permanent and see how we can help towns and cities comply with these laws without causing more problems or creating unrealistic expectations from municipalities.

I’m sure you’re all going to go do a deep dive into open meeting law now and read all about it; if you want to discuss, I’m always available or 917-887-8231. I appreciate all the emails and phone calls and texts, and welcome your input and opinions.