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Rep. Kathleen James: Closed doors, open meetings

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On the evening of March 13, as Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency, the Vermont House of Representatives unanimously passed two wide-ranging relief bills to help our state respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after the vote, Speaker Mitzi Johnson banged the gavel and the House adjourned.

Since that day, as the coronavirus spreads through our communities, legislators have been working from home and the statehouse doors have been closed. But closed doors don't mean closed meetings. In fact, the deliberations of the General Assembly, in many ways, are now more open than ever.

Our legislature is governed by the Vermont Constitution, by an extensive set of parliamentary rules (including Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedures), by various customs and precedents, and — in the unlikely event that anything slips through the cracks — by any relevant state statutes. Our procedures predate and are closely aligned with the familiar "open meeting laws" that govern public bodies like school and select boards.

The Constitution requires that the Statehouse doors are open to the public, literally: Every day that we're in session, anyone can watch the proceedings on the House and Senate floor, or grab a front-row seat at a committee meeting. The meetings are recorded and digital files available by request. All testimony is published on the Vermont General Assembly website (legislature.vermont.gov), where you can also read every bill, follow the House and Senate calendars, peruse our bios and voting records, and much more.

So, what happens when a public-health crisis forces the Statehouse doors to stay shut? We go remote — a process that's providing remarkable access to anyone who wants to follow along.

Since March 13, many key meetings have been conducted by conference call, with the dial-in numbers and access codes available to the public and the press, and posted on committee websites. Among other meetings, I've been listening to the regular briefings provided to the Joint Rules and House Rules committees, and I've also participated in tele-meetings for the entire House. These calls are offered through conference-call platforms with capacity for 300 to 500 people to listen in, far more than any room in the statehouse.

While the conference calls are effective, our IT staff is rolling out something even better: Online committee hearings, convened on the Zoom video-conferencing platform and livestreamed on YouTube. I'm a member of the House Education Committee, and on March 27 we pulled off our successful Zoom and YouTube debut, taking testimony from education leaders across Vermont on how schools are responding to COVID-19. It went smoothly, with only a few now-familiar reminders to "unmute" and not a single barking dog. From the General Assembly homepage, click on the green "Scheduled Committee Meetings" box. That'll take you to a list of all committee schedules and YouTube links.

As of this writing, we're getting ready to cross the final frontier: remote voting. Interestingly, electronic meeting and remote voting has been permitted under Vermont's open meeting law — again, for institutions like select board and city councils — since 2013. But it has not been allowed in the General Assembly until now.

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On March 25, the House passed a series of resolutions to lay the groundwork for this important step — since voting, obviously, is key to moving any bills forward. The first resolution (HR.16) declared a state of emergency specific to the House. Based on this declaration of emergency, the House temporarily suspended our normal procedures under HR.17 to allow committees to vote remotely, so we can move bills to the House floor for debate and final passage.

Then came the Catch-22 between procedure and public health. How could a group of 150 legislators give itself permission to vote remotely, and abide by the urgent "stay at home" directives, when we did not yet have the ability to vote remotely?

One suggestion was to roll out the technology, train all of us, test it, and then return in person to vote on whether we should use it. Under normal circumstances, great idea. But that plan would have taken at least a week, maybe two. Given the exponential caseload growth of COVID-19, and our responsibility to help "flatten the curve" by staying home, that delay was neither necessary nor wise.

Governing in a time of crisis requires consensus, collaboration and flexibility. Guided by those unifying principles, we cautiously adopted a two-step process. HR.18 allows the full House to debate and vote remotely on other bills, but only after final ratification (by remote vote) of three-quarters of members present and voting. That's a much higher bar than our usual majority rule, but in line with the three-quarters majority needed to suspend House rules in normal debate. We'll begin that ratification process after the training and practice period. Since it's intended to be a temporary way to allow us to pass important bills, HR.18 is set to expire when the state of emergency ends or at the start of the 2021 biennial session, whichever comes sooner.

All three of these important resolutions were developed, discussed and negotiated in public conference calls with the House Rules Committee, the full House, and leaders from the Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and Independents. This process included one-on-one outreach to all legislators — every single one of us had a chance to weigh in.

The resolution trio passed the House by a near-unanimous voice vote, with only one member among the 94 present voting no.

Even as I write, the legislative IT staff is getting the new system up and running, using an online platform called Everbridge that's already used by our Capitol Police. It offers a secure way to vote, and to verify who's voting. We'll be testing it in small groups and committees, so we can address any glitches before its debut on the House floor. We're also making sure every legislator is comfortable with the technology, so we can stay squarely focused on our highest priority: ensuring the health and safety of Vermonters.

In a time of crisis, it's critical that we continue to adhere to the highest standards of good governance, including openness, transparency and accountability. The Vermont General Assembly is meeting this challenge by rolling out a system that, in some ways, is even more open than before. Instead of driving to Montpelier to attend a committee hearing or watch a hot floor debate, any Vermonter, anywhere, can catch the daily Statehouse show while listening or watching from home. Save some popcorn for me.

Kathleen James represents the Bennington-4 district (Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and part of Sunderland) in the Vermont House of Representatives. Follow her on Facebook at Kathleen James VT State Representative, email her at KJames@leg.state.vt.us, or learn more at her website: kathjamesforstaterep.com. Thanks to William MaGill, Clerk of the House, for background information on House rules and open meeting law.


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