By Rob Mitchell
MOUNT HOLLY, Vt. — An ongoing fracas over plans for a new town garage in Mount Holly, a town of 1,237 between Killington and Okemo mountains in Vermont, illustrates the challenge to the public process inherent with the attitude and relationships of small New England towns.
When the town needed a new fire station a few decades ago, townspeople brought their own tools and materials and built a new station under the supervision of a few contractors – a far different and much more informal process than was required when the need for a new town garage, and the attendant cost of at least $500,000, arose about five years ago.
The Select Board proceeded with planning the garage – and whether the discussion and planning was in the open, in publicly posted meetings is up for debate – up to the point where it went to bid this spring.
But the board put the construction out to bid without fully settling legal issues surrounding the land to be used, and without finalized plans for construction. After the RFP went out, the town road foreman asked that the garage’s size be increased and another door added – something that should have been settled by that point.
Moreover, the two bids that were received were reviewed in executive session (legally), then the contractor was selected over the course of two special meetings which were only posted the minimum 24 hours prior to the meeting (technically legal, but not in the public interest).
Shortly after, a group of 14 townspeople filed suit to halt work, saying that the select board violated open meeting laws and failed to do the work necessary to properly plan and bid the garage. In a May letter from their lawyer, they outline 15 things the board needs to disclose or to do — from hiring an architect to disclosing the money spent on the project since 2008 — before proceeding.
The tension between the open, formal process and the informal, ‘get it done over coffee at the general store’ has rarely been more apparent.
“Local boards are really under the spotlight as more attention is being paid to open meeting laws,” said Jim Barlow, senior staff attorney for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ municipal assistance center, at a recent forum on meetings at the nearby Clarendon Grange.
“There’s been a lot of criticism of boards regarding the use of executive session.”
Town and city officials around the state have also run afoul of the state’s Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Act by holding committee meetings without proper warning, or by communicating via electronic means, Barlow said.
“Select board and school board members should not participate in discussions on social media,” he said. “You want to be careful you’re not creating the perception you’re having a discussion outside a meeting.”
It’s something reporters and editors should keep in mind — while a full select board meeting might be where the work officially take place, there’s usually more going on behind the scenes, and it’s our job to pull it out into the light.
Rob Mitchell is online manager/state editor of the Rutland Herald. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sandi Switzer contributed to this story.