Closed meetings spark conversation in Bristol

BRISTOL — Concerns about the excessive use of executive sessions sparked a brief discussion about Vermont’s Open Meeting law on Monday night, when two Bristol residents pushed the town’s selectboard to limit the use of closed meetings in town affairs.
Pointing out the selectboard has entered executive sessions — which are closed to the public and members of the media — 10 times in the first 11 meetings of 2010, Bristol resident Bob Bernstein voiced concern that the selectboard appears to be resorting to the privacy of closed meetings too frequently. (Town Administrator Bill Bryant tallied the count at 11 executive sessions in 17  meetings during the first six months of the year.)
Bernstein alleged that the board seems to be ignoring advice from the Vermont Secretary of State’s website that boards close their meetings rarely, and then only for legitimate purposes.
Without mention in selectboard minutes of any action taken after executive sessions, Bernstein said it’s hard to know whether or not the board is violating Vermont’s Open Meeting law, which stipulates specific instances in which boards may close their meetings to the public. Such times include discussions about negotiating or securing real estate options, contracts and labor agreements, and certain personnel matters such as hiring, evaluating or disciplining a public officer or employee, among other matters.
Bernstein’s concerned sparked little debate on Monday night. Selectboard chair Alan Huizenga told Bernstein that the board understood his concerns, and is seeking legal advice about when to go into executive sessions and how best to record these instances in board minutes.
Meanwhile, Bryant defended the board’s use of executive sessions.
“I would be happy to talk to (the Secretary of State’s office) about all of our minutes and every executive session we’ve had and share with them the specific topics that we’ve talked about … because I am confident that we are appropriately using executive sessions,” Bryant said. “There’s been a lot of business that the town has conducted in the last six months that has been eligible and appropriate to be done in executive session, and I think you’re making a lot of assumptions and frankly I think you’re long.”
After the meeting, Bryant said that some of those conversations have included real estate options for the police department; ongoing personnel issues; and discussions with the town’s lawyer about the Lathrop gravel pit proposal.
On a related note, Bristol resident John Moyers voiced concern that another Bristol board — the town’s planning commission — went into executive session during its June 15 meeting to discuss “personnel.” Moyers alleged the brief closed meeting was used to discuss the attendance of board members.
Moyers said that because the board does not employee any staff, and serves at the pleasure of the selectboard, he believes the commission is not eligible to discuss personnel in the privacy of a closed meeting.
He urged the selectboard to advise Bristol boards to limit closed meetings, and on the topic of a new opening on the planning commission suggested the board act quickly to fill the seat commissioner Jim Peabody resigned last week.
In other business on Monday night, the Bristol selectboard also:
• OK’d the Bristol Conservation Commission’s application for a grant to the state’s “Clean and Clear” fund to do a geomorphic assessment on the lower portion of the New Haven River in Bristol. The study would cost roughly $27,000, and if the grant is awarded the total cost would be covered. The commission told the board on Monday that the assessment is necessary to address landowners’ concerns about erosion along the river.
• Approved a Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom petition to place utility poles on Lower Notch Road.
• Discussed three openings on the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, as well as the seat on the town’s planning commission vacated recently by Peabody.
The board appointed Bill Sayre, Peter Grant and Chico Martin to the regional planning commission, and decided to advertise the opening on the planning commission. Bryant said he will also be reaching out to applicants to the planning commission who expressed interest in 2008, 2009 and 2010 who were not appointed to the board at that time to let them know about the opening.
• Decided to update the town’s purchasing policy and require purchase orders for any purchase in town departments exceeding $1,500. Bryant and Town Clerk Therese Kirby will present a draft of the new purchasing policy to the board in the future.
• Confirmed landfill rates for 2010-2011. The board several months ago increased coupon rates from $3 to $3.50 for up to three 30-gallon trash bags, and now moved to set rates for other garbage — like light bulbs, tires or electronic waste — at multiples of $3.50 so customers could use coupons more frequently at the landfill.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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