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New Open Meetings Law raises questions

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin has signed a bill that makes changes to the state’s open meeting laws; some organizations have raised concerns that the new law will decrease transparency in government.
The intention of the law is to modernize the state’s open meeting laws, which Shumlin said have not been significantly updated in several decades.
Several provisions of the law have generated controversy — including one that allows public bodies a “do-over” after committing an open meeting violation, and another that permits bodies to interview candidates for vacancies in secret.
In a statement after he signed the legislation on May 23, Shumlin conceded that H.497 has several flaws, and that legislators must do more in the future to reform Vermont’s open meeting statutes.
“This bill is not perfect, and parts of it give me significant concern,” Shumlin wrote. “I feel strongly that the Open Meeting Law must be strengthened.”
The Vermont Press Association, which represents dozens of newspapers across the state, unsuccessfully lobbied Shumlin not to sign the bill. After the governor did so, the VPA drafted a press release expressing disappointment in the governor’s choice.
“The Vermont Press Association is deeply disappointed that Gov. Peter Shumlin opted not to veto a seriously flawed Open Meeting Law,” VPA President John Flowers wrote, noting that the bill was passed as a compromise between the House and Senate in the final days of the session.
Flowers recalled a similar bill several years ago that stalled in the Legislature after the VPA cited its numerous flaws. This time around, the VPA was unsuccessful in making its concerns heard.
“Unfortunately, those serious problems were not corrected this year and some new provisions are added to give government officials the ability to conduct more public business in secrecy,” Flowers wrote.
Specifically, the VPA raised alarm over a provision of the law that allows local and state boards to have “do-overs” when they violate the law, instead of facing criminal or civil sanctions. The organization also pointed to a loophole that, in theory, allows bodies to repeatedly violate the law without penalty.
“The new law does not limit how many ‘do-overs’ a board can do in a year,” Flowers wrote.
The VPA also objected to a section of the law that permits elected boards to interview candidates for boards and commissions in secret.
The Burlington Free Press, the state’s largest daily newspaper, also editorialized against the “do-over” provision.
“The law affords no guaranteed second chances for common criminals, let alone felons,” editorial page editor Aki Soga wrote. “Why should those entrusted with the people’s business be afforded such special courtesy?”
Shumlin also expressed concern about 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,” the governor said. “I … would far prefer a stronger process for enforcement than this bill creates.”
The bill cleared the House and Senate in the waning days of the legislative session earlier this month. Other provisions clarify what sort of electronic communication between public body members does and does not constitute a meeting. The law also permits plaintiffs to seek compensation from bodies in open meeting-related litigation, which Shumlin praised.
“This is an important step in reducing barriers to enforcement by ensuring that Vermonters can actually afford to pursue a violation when it occurs,” Shumlin said.
Shumlin also said H.497 will increase transparency in government by requiring public bodies to post meeting agendas and minutes on their websites.
“It is long past time for these reforms,” Shumlin wrote. “The legislative work in this area is far from finished and I view my action today as another step toward greater transparency, not an end point.”
The new law will take effect July 1.
Editor’s note: VPA President John Flowers is also the senior reporter at the Addison Independent.

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