Area towns struggle to comply with new public records law
ADDISON/STARKSBORO — Two Addison County towns have found different answers to a challenge posed by revisions the Legislature made to Vermont’s Open Meeting Law this past session, a challenge shared by a number of towns statewide.
Vermont towns have always been required to make available drafts of meeting minutes within five days. The revised law also requires towns with websites to post those draft minutes online in that same timeframe.
Most Addison County towns — especially larger towns like Middlebury, Vergennes, Ferrisburgh and Bristol — that have fulltime paid staff with computer skills have not found it difficult to follow the law. Even some smaller towns with websites, like Panton, for example, have faithfully posted minutes online.
But not all towns have employee-managed websites or workers with the necessary computer skills. Addison and Starksboro fit that description, and both chose to follow a Vermont League of Cities and Towns recommendation to take down their town websites because they could not meet the five-day mandate.
The VLCT earlier this year warned that towns could face criminal penalties for failing to meet the online posting deadline, and that it was safer to shut down websites rather than operate them if the five-day requirement could not be met.
Both Starksboro and Addison previously had offsite webmasters to whom town officials would send materials to be posted, and that extra step proved to be too time-consuming for the towns to meet the deadline.
Starksboro Town Clerk Cheryl Estey said her town’s website manager had family and other obligations that understandably made it difficult to upload material immediately, and the town took down the website rather than risk breaking the law.
“She wasn’t able to do everything in a timely fashion. We had no choice,” Estey said.
As for her and other Starksboro officials, Estey said, “We couldn’t do it ourselves at all.”
But now Starksboro’s website is back in business.
Estey said the town successfully applied for a grant to pay for someone to teach her and two other Starksboro officials how to upload minutes and tweak the town’s website, which she believes is now more user-friendly.
“We’re just doing it ourselves. Each one of us in the office can do it,” she said.
The training process consisted of two sessions of roughly 90 minutes apiece, Estey said.
“It was not as bad as I thought it was going to be,” she said. “Between the three of us we usually figure it out.”
Addison Town Clerk Marilla Webb said that town’s website manager similarly needed material two days before actually getting it up on the website, meaning town office workers had three days to find time to transcribe, type and transfer data after each meeting.
Webb said she thought the website was helpful and was unhappy the law created the concern for Addison, and selectboard chairman Jeff Kauffman agreed.
“It was a benefit to the town and the taxpayers,” Kauffman said.
But the selectboard pulled the plug in August because the competing demands on Webb and the town’s assistant clerk meant there was no guarantee the deadline could be met.
“There’s just so much work there that people are doing,” Kauffman said.
Kauffman said Addison is waiting until this next legislative session, when the VLCT will lobby for towns to have more time to meet the online posting requirement.
He said he believed the full selectboard would support reinstating a town website if the Legislature amended the law to cut towns more slack, possibly with a 10-day deadline for online posting.
“I think they would put it back up,” Kauffman said.
In the meantime, Webb said anyone who wants to see minutes but can’t come to the office can call the office, and she will scan and email the material.
In taking down their websites, at least temporarily, both Addison and Starksboro followed this June advice from the VLCT: “Prepare your municipality’s website, if there is one, so that you will be ready to post agendas before meetings and minutes five days after those meetings occur, or de-activate the website to avoid violating this requirement.”
That recommendation, however, has come under fire, notably from the Vermont Press Association. The VPA, in a statement released by its leadership, argued that the VLCT should instead have done more to help its members follow the law.
“The VLCT has done little, or nothing, to offer training for any league members that might need the very limited computer skills needed to post to the web,” the statement read. “The League could have encouraged towns to develop positive relationships with local computer students to help with the municipal website.”
VLCT Executive Director Steve Jeffrey — who said the VLCT had only anecdotal evidence but not an exact count of the number of towns that had taken websites offline — last week stood by the recommendation.
“Given that the alternative was to be potentially be found in violation of a criminal violation and potentially having to pay for lawyers’ fees for people who saw fit to sue the town, I don’t think the towns have much choice but to look to being able to comply or taking their websites down,” Jeffrey said. “I don’t consider that’s out of line. I don’t feel that making the taxpayers pay for those problems is going to solve anything.”
Jeffrey said that the VLCT would be lobbying lawmakers for the solution that Addison seeks.
“The top of our priority list is the five-day posting requirement,” he said, and the VLCT would seek “10 business days for the posting to the web, as long as anybody who is really interested can go in and get it or have it mailed to them electronically. So I think there’s some accommodations that we can make, particularly for the smaller towns.”
The VPA does not agree five days is too much of a burden, and its statement criticizes the VLCT for continuing “to take stands on reducing information available” to citizens:
“Vermont law has always required minutes of all government meetings to be available five days after a meeting. That has not changed. The only change is requiring towns to put the information on its website.
“The VPA opposes any change in the five-day standard. It has served Vermonters well. Increasing the time period for releasing information hurts democracy. It also would be inappropriate and awkward to have two standards to comply with Vermont law. Why should a taxpayer be able to drive to town hall to get copies of minutes, but have to wait for 10 days to read them on the web?”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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