Settlement in MAU meeting law suit

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BENNINGTON — A tentative settlement was reached prior to a pretrial conference in an open meeting law complaint brought by a group of residents against the Mount Anthony Union School Board.

Judge William Cohen told attorney Amanda Lafferty, who represented the board in the suit, that he expects to approve the agreement after reviewing paperwork signed by both parties.

Until then, Cohen said, the start of a trial in the suit, scheduled for Feb. 21, will remain on the court calendar.

Lafferty, who participated via telephone during the session Thursday at Bennington Superior Court Civil Division, said she had already signed on behalf of the MAU board, which approved the settlement at a meeting Tuesday.

Mary Gerisch, one of six plaintiffs who sued over alleged meeting law violations around the time the board was considering finalist candidates for a new MAU High School principal in 2015, said later Thursday that the other plaintiffs also had signed the settlement.

The other plaintiffs are Laurie Mulher, Nancy Sanford, Eileen Zazarro and two town Select Board members, Jeanne Connor and Jeannie Jenkins.

"We are very happy that the MAU Board has decided to settle this matter, and to avoid further expensive litigation to the taxpayers," Gerisch said. "We never thought the matter would actually proceed to litigation, since all we were requesting was compliance with the law, which the board always said they wanted to do."

Board Chairman Timothy Holbrook said Thursday evening, "Both parties put together an agreement acceptable to each party. "I'm hopeful this will satisfy both sides."

Holbrook said the board vote to approve the settlement was unanimous.

According to the agreement, the MAU Board does not admit that it violated the meeting law in the disputed instances. It states that the board "does not admit or agree that the requirements of this order are necessarily requirements of the Vermont Open Meeting Law. MAU stipulates to this order as a compromise to avoid further litigation expense and costs and the fully resolve the matter."

However, the board agrees to "make a good faith effort to ensure that each MAU meeting agenda gives a true indication of the business planned for that meeting."

It also agrees that, "when considering whether to hold an executive session, MAU shall make and vote on the motion to hold an executive session in the course of an open meeting."

The settlement adds: "Attendance in executive session shall be limited to MAU members, and in MAU's reasonable discretion, MAU's staff, clerical assistants and legal counsel, and persons who are subjects of the discussion or whose information is needed."

One objection from the plaintiffs was that a member of another school board was allowed into an executive session for an unstated reason. The board subsequently came out of the closed session and voted to hire an out-of-district candidate for principal over a popular in-house candidate.

The plaintiffs also contended that the board improperly began a meeting and entered into executive session in a room used for executive sessions, not in the regular meeting area for open session. The board then transferred to the regular meeting room to announce the decision.

The plaintiffs likewise contended that the board improperly warned a meeting, so that the public did not realize a decision on the controversial principal appointment would be made at that session, and did not properly alter a board meeting agenda.

The plaintiffs also originally sought to overturn the board's decision in April 2015 to hire Glenda Cresto as principal. They had focused much of their complaint on meetings leading up to that board vote, seeking "an injunctive order requiring that the current MAU principal be suspended pending a proper hiring procedure and an opening meeting for discussion of same."

But prior to the first court hearing in the suit, Cresto announced she would leave before her contract expired, and the plaintiffs asked to dismiss that aspect of the suit as now moot.

Cresto, who was hired over then-Assistant Principal Michael Molloy, left the school system in August 2017. Previously, she said she would leave at the end of the current school year, when her contract would end, but she and the board reached a separation agreement that called for her to leave immediately but be paid through June 2018.

SVSU Director of Curriculum Development Laura Boudreau is currently serving as interim principal.

Also agreed to in the settlement agreement is that the board "shall make a good faith effort to ensure that a public `sign-in' sheet is available at MAU meetings ."

With regard to possible future violations of the settlement, the plaintiffs agree not to institute contempt of court proceedings or request relief without first "providing MAU written notice" of a specific meeting law violation and requesting a specific cure for the alleged violation.

If MAU addresses the issue by acknowledging a violation and stating an intent to resolve it, and does so with 14 days, the plaintiffs agree not to take further action.

And the board agreed to have at least six of its members attend a professional meeting law training session of not less than two hours duration that is open to the public, as well as request in writing that the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union policy drafting committee consider a policy regarding professional OML training for new board members in all SVSU districts.

Gerisch had said previously that the plaintiffs tried to settle the dispute without seeking monetary damages "about 20 times" since the suit was filed in March 2016.

She added at the time of the judge's decision against the motion to dismiss, "I think the judge was pretty clear that his idea of the [open meeting law provisions in dispute] isn't going to change,"

In his 10-page decision rejecting the board's motion, Cohen stated in part, "As should be clear to the parties, the court has found much of the board's interpretation of the open meeting law to be incorrect."

In the fall, Gerisch again called for the board to settle and stressed that the citizen group was not looking for damages but for an admission there had been violations and some assurance steps would be taken to ensure against future violations.

The board also has been asked how much the suit cost the district to defend.

Holbrook said Thursday that the final amount has yet to be determined but that he expects it will be released during the next board meeting.

Lafferty is an attorney with the district's legal counsel, Stitzel, Page & Fletcher, of Burlington.

The plaintiffs alleged that both the substance and "the spirit of the law" had been violated, and that an overall lack of transparency concerning meetings and decisions involving the MAU board was their chief complaint.

The allegations included that the board called executive sessions improperly; did not move properly in open session to enter into executive sessions; failed to notice a meeting not held on the board's regular meeting date as a special meeting, and prepared an agenda that did not properly reflect topics of discussion and failed to amend the agenda as the first order of business.

The suit also alleged relative to another issue that it was improper for the board on Sept. 16, 2015, to enter an executive session to discuss the creation of five part-time school positions.

Cohen agreed in his decision, saying in part, "Again, the court finds that this interpretation of the open meeting law [by the board] flies in the face of both the letter and the spirit of the law."

In another section, Cohen agreed with the plaintiffs that the April 7 board agenda was improperly amended.

"We are also very glad that the board has committed to complying with the provisions of the state's Open Meetings Law going forward," Gerisch said Thursday. "Their having embraced the concept of transparency is very important to the public, and to the board's ability to function as effective representatives of their community."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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