KEITH WHITCOMB JR.
POWNAL -- Following up on a complaint from a citizen group about the Select Board entering two executive sessions, the state Attorney General's office found that the board apparently did not intend to violate the law, but that deficiencies occurred from a "lack of attention to the detail required by the law."
In June, the board voted to send the attorney general's office minutes of executive sessions held on May 3 and May 17. The AG had asked for them after a complaint from the Taxpayers Association of Pownal alleging that those sessions were entered into improperly.
Motion must be made
A board can go behind closed doors for a number of reasons, mostly when public knowledge of the discussion would place the public body at a disadvantage. Boards commonly enter executive session to discuss their legal positions, contract negotiations, and personnel matters, but that list is not all inclusive. A motion must be made to enter executive session and the board must state its reason for doing so. Motions may not be made inside an executive session.
According to the AG letter, signed by Susanne R. Young, assistant attorney general, the nature of the complaint from the taxpayer association was that the board was not specific enough when it gave its reasons for entering executive session.
"The motions to enter executive session on May 3, May 17, and June 17, as recorded in the board's minutes contained very minimal explanations of the nature of the business to be discussed using broad, non-specific terms such as ‘legal issues' and ‘personnel issues,'" states Young's letter. "The law requires a formal motion identifying the nature of the business of an executive session for many reasons. The motion informs members of the public as to ‘when and for what reason the public bodies have recessed to closed sessions;' informs the public body itself as to the ‘parameters of the subject matter that can be discussed in the session;' and enables those charged with investigating or adjudicating complaints to ascertain ‘the propriety of the grounds stated as the basis for the meeting.'"
According to Young, the board must also determine that the matter being discussed would place it at a disadvantage if the discussion was held in open session.
"In conclusion, the procedure by which the board entered into the executive session was deficient to the extent the motions did not indicate the nature of the business to be discussed with the degree of specificity required by the law and, for those sessions held under the authority of subsection 313(a)(1), to the extent it is not apparent the board determined that premature disclosure would place any of the enumerated entities at a disadvantage before entering executive session," writes Young.
The letter encouraged the board to seek further training and advice on the open meeting law, specifically the parts about entering executive session. Young wrote there did not appear to be a willful intent to break procedure, but rather it was caused by lack of attention to detail.
The letter's existence was pointed out by board Chairman Stephen Kauppi, who said it was lengthy and invited anyone who wished to do so to read it, as it's a public document. He was pressed by Eve Pearce, a resident, to summarize it.
"It says the board believes it has meet all the necessary requirements of the open meeting law with respect to the May 2, May 17 meetings and it is safe to assume that holds true for the meeting on June 7 and June 14 as well. The office does encourage the Select Board to seek additional training and advice on the requirements of the Vermont open meeting law with respects to procedures and so on," Kauppi said.
Pearce pressed Kauppi to read more of the letter, while board member Mike George indicated there is a paragraph saying the board did nothing wrong.
"You have read selected portions of the letter," Pearce said. "You skipped the critical pieces."
Kauppi said the letter was available upon request to anyone who wished to see it.
"I would encourage people to read it, it's quite informative," said Pearce, and the board moved on to other matters.