June 23, 2018

Open Meeting Law flawed

By John Flowers

The Vermont Press Association is deeply disappointed that Gov. Peter Shumlin opted not to veto a seriously flawed Open Meeting Law that was passed as part of a compromise between the House and Senate in the final days of the legislative session.
We are pleased Gov. Shumlin, while signing the bill, noted he wants to work with the legislature, Secretary of State Jim Condos, the Vermont Press Association and other open government advocates in improving the Open Meeting Law when the new legislature starts in January.
Several legislators, including Senate President Pro Temp John Campbell, D-Windsor, have expressed concerns in recent days to VPA members that the new law fails to address many of the historic problems with the law. They have pledged to try to fix those problems.
The Press Association is calling on Vermonters to ask candidates for all state offices this fall how they would improve government transparency. Also if they favor repeal of this flawed open meeting law. We hope legislators elected in November will work to overturn the problems created by the bill and adopt new positive provisions.
A similar bill stalled three years ago near the end of the Vermont legislative session because of numerous flaws cited by the VPA. 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.
Among the problems in the new law is a provision that allows local and state boards to have “do overs” when they violate the law instead of facing criminal or civil actions. The new law does not limit how many “do overs” a board can do in a year. The new law also gives boards the right to go behind closed doors to interview and select a candidate to fill a vacancy on various boards and commissions, but rubber-stamp the selection in open.
The new law also provides a false sense to Vermont taxpayers that they will recover their legal fees when forced to hire a private lawyer to take a board to civil court seeking to overturn an action taken during an improper or illegal meeting. The new law leaves possible legal fees up to a judge’s discretion, but public officials can avoid the costs by claiming they thought they were acting in good faith.

John Flowers of the Addison Independent is the president of the Vermont Press Association.

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