BENNINGTON >> Secretary of State Jim Condos visited Bennington on Monday as part of his biennial "Got Transparency?" tour to promote openness in government.
Condos, who was joined at the Bennington Firehouse by Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters, as in years past divided his presentation into two halves, one addressing Vermont's Open Meeting Law, and the other discussing public meeting requests. Many members of local boards were in attendance, including four members of the Bennington Select Board, Chairman Tom Jacobs, Jim Carroll, Don Campbell, and Michael Keene, as well as state Rep. Mary Morrissey. Much of the audience, however, was made up of members of the public, many of whom had bones to pick with local boards over perceived open meeting law violations.
Condos visits 12 towns every off-election year to inform the public, and oftentimes the boards themselves, about the laws that are in place to keep the public informed about what their elected officials are doing.
"We go to all four corners of the state, and everywhere in between," he said. The tour visited Bennington in 2011 and 2013.
One of the first things that Condos was asked to clarify was if the four members of the Bennington Select Board in attendance qualified as a quorum, and if, as such, they would have had to warn the gathering as a special public meeting. Condos said no, so long as they do not discuss any town business while gathered together. He said there is nothing that prevents a quorum (defined as a majority of the public body) from meeting on Saturday morning to talk baseball, or anything else that the board has no power over, but, he said, "If you started talking about the budget, or the highway, or plowing, or whatever, now you've crossed a line."
The majority of discussion, and questions from the audience, focused on executive sessions. Condos asked board members to stand up and speak out if they feel the reasons for going into executive session aren't supported by the law.
"There has to be a majority vote of the board, in open meeting, to go into executive session," said Condos. "That means a discussion needs to happen, and the public can be involved in that discussion as well."
Condos said that he hopes that every board is doing its best to do as little business in executive session as possible. "Use executive session properly," he said.
Carroll asked Condos if interviews for appointments to public boards would, in his view, be a fair use of executive session.
"I feel the public has a right to know who you are considering for appointments to boards," replied Condos, who said that the interviews should be held in open session, then deliberation should occur in executive session. When the board exits executive session, he said, should it move to appoint, it should explain its reasons for choosing that candidate. This would represent a change to the current policy of the Select Board.
Asked by a member of the public if going into executive session for a vague reason, such as "personnel matters" was acceptable, Condos replied, "If you ask 10 different lawyers, you'll get 10 different answers," he said, but he added that the spirit of the law is that a more detailed description is given. He also said the public and board members have a right to question vague descriptions during the discussion on the motion to go into executive session.
Community member Lee Russ also asked Condos to clarify who the board could invite into executive session.
"If the board can just decide who to invite, and it's not even stated in the open public meeting, that just seems very wrong to me," Russ said.
Condos said that anyone who is not on the board that will be present in executive session should be explicitly listed in the motion to go into executive session, so as to allow disagreement from the board or members of the public. He did say that, "there is nothing written in stone about this, but that is best practice."
He noted that a complaint could be filed with the attorney general or state's attorney's offices, although there is a time constraint. Condos was not specific about how long that was. If the court does find that there was a violation, he said, they have the right to void anything that was done in that executive session, but will often give the board the opportunity to go back and do it correctly.
The final portion of the meeting focused on public records requests, which drew considerably fewer questions from the audience. Condos covered not only the rights of the public, but also the rights of the boards, which he said cannot be obligated to gather new information or create a record which does not already exist to comply with a records request.
The slides of his presentation are available online, and are linked in the online version of this article, on benningtonbanner.com.