Legislation relating to our state's open meeting law quietly passed the Vermont House on Feb. 28 and the Senate on May 7. The bill, H. 497, is now headed to Gov. Peter Shumlin for his consideration.
Before the governor puts pen to paper, we'd like to point out a number of flaws with this proposed legislation.
For one, the bill gives boards a "get out of jail free" card for a first infraction. So even if a board was violating the open records law for several months prior to getting "caught," it could get no penalty at all for that first transgression, no matter how egregious it is.
As with the current law, the proposed legislation does not address whether a public board's minutes need to be kept in closed-door session. If, after the fact, it comes to light that a private meeting should've been held in public, there will continue to be no record.
If you've attended any school board or select board meeting lately, you're familiar with the regular frequency of executive sessions at these meetings. Per state law closed sessions are allowed to discuss negotiations, employee matters, real estate, disciplinary records of students or public employees and discussions that would "result in a clear and imminent peril to public safety," according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
Those allowances cover a lot of ground.
Additionally, this bill does not increase the penalty for violating Vermont's open records law. Since the 1970s, the penalty has remained at $500. Forty years ago, that might have been prohibitive for many boards, but nowadays, perhaps having to pay a fine of that amount doesn't deliver as much of a sting.
For more information on H. 497 -- and information about more of its flaws -- please see the other side of this page for an op-ed submitted by lobbyist Joe Choquette on behalf of the Vermont Press Association, of which the Banner is a member.
The role of open government and freedom of information is crucial in a democracy. It's worth defending.
Let's keep open meetings in Vermont as open as they can be and not start imposing limits to the information presented in them that is the public's right to know.
Only Gov. Shumlin can keep H. 497 from becoming law at this point.
We urge the governor not to sign this bill, which will take Vermont a few steps backward when it comes to open meetings law.
Let's continue to move forward in that area, with transparency.