Misgivings come with new Vermont open meetings law
MONTPELIER -- As he signed a new open meetings bill into law, Gov. Peter Shumlin expressed "serious concern" about parts of it, including a do-over provision that allows government bodies a chance to fix violations without penalty.
Now some open government advocates are asking for a do-over on the entire law, and a key legislator says lawmakers will likely revisit some aspects of it next year.
Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor and chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee, said she was surprised during committee hearings on that bill that she didn't hear much from the Vermont Press Association, a traditional key advocate in legislation relating to access to government records and meetings.
That group recently went through a change in presidents, and its part-time executive director, Mike Donoghue of The Burlington Free Press, missed the last two months of the legislation session after being seriously injured in a fall.
It was only in the final days before Shumlin signed the bill that the group began raising an alarm about it.
After the signing, Vermont Press Association President John Flowers of the Addison Independent said the group was "deeply disappointed" in what it called the "seriously flawed" legislation.
"We are pleased Gov. Shumlin, while signing the bill, noted he wants to work with the Legislature, Secretary of State Jim Condos, the Vermont Press Association and other open government advocates in improving the Open Meeting Law when the new legislature starts in January," Flowers said.
Shumlin has made public celebrations out of several bill signings but signed the update to the open meetings law May 23 in private. He said he liked parts of it.
He wrote in a statement to lawmakers that he was signing the legislation "in recognition of the time it has taken to arrive at consensus on the positive aspects of this bill. Those improvements include coverage of legal costs for those who have to sue to gain access to a public meeting."
On that front, the press association argued that the open meetings law is weaker than an update to the public records law passed three years ago. The earlier law requires violators to pay the legal fees racked up by complaining parties who prevail in court. The open meetings law leaves the question of violators paying legal fees up to the judge.
The issue of who pays the legal fees is often a key tipping point in access-to-records or open-meetings fights. The prospect of steep legal bills often has deterred individuals and small newspapers from pursuing such claims.
Condos said he shares some of the governor's concerns about the new law but noted that "mandatory attorney fees have worked to change the culture for public records since they were implemented in 2011."
Steve Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which represents municipal officials, defended the new law, saying it's fair that the opening meetings law is less strict than the public records law. Volunteer town boards often make the decision on whether to hold public meetings, while town clerks and other paid officials typically handle public records decisions, Jeffrey said.
"It's an imperfect world. They're going to make some mistakes," Jeffrey said of volunteer town board members.
Both Condos' office and the League offer training to local officials about Vermont's open meetings and public records laws.
Shumlin said he worries the law may be weakened by the do-over provision.
"I fear that the so-called 'do over' provision that allows a public body a 'second chance' to comply before being sued will serve as a significant disincentive in making the meetings of public bodies open to Vermonters in the first place," he wrote to lawmakers.
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