By Michael Donoghue
The Vermont legislature is about to finalize how long government boards have to post drafts of meeting minutes on their websites. For about 40 years, the law has required that such drafts be available to the public within five calendar days. Last year, the legislature adopted without any objections the same standard for posting them on their respective websites. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill.
But as the law was going into effect, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns started to urge communities to shut down their municipal websites if they could not comply. Instead of offering training for municipalities they believed couldn’t comply, the League advised them to shut the sites down in defiance of the new law. About a dozen municipalities took the League up on the suggestion. But this created extra work for municipal clerks, who were forced to field more phone calls seeking basic information about the towns that had previously been easy to obtain on their websites.
This year the League has pushed an effort to bump the web posting requirement from five to seven days, but the Vermont Press Association, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos and others have argued for one standard for all meeting minutes. They maintain that web personnel do not need an extra 48 hours to post draft minutes.
Below is an excerpt from a letter I wrote on behalf of the press association to the Senate Government Operations Committee (Senators Jeanette White, Anthony Pollina, Joe Benning, Christopher Bray and Brian Collamore) reaffirming our belief that there should be one five-day standard. The Senate Government Operations Committee, after hearing from two more League lobbyists, agreed with us 5-0 that the Senate should stand firm on the 5-day requirement and not create two standards. The full Senate later approved sending the issue to a conference committee to try to settle the issue.
The Vermont Press Association thanks each of you very much for your ongoing effort to provide greater transparency for all Vermonters with your work in recent years both on open meetings and public records.
The VPA, which represents the interests of the 11 printed daily and four dozen non-daily newspapers circulating in Vermont along with their readers throughout the state that they serve, hopes you will keep that vital transparency effort going by blocking a proposed change in the Open Meeting legislation now coming back to you.
We join others in urging you to refrain from lengthening the period of time towns have to post their draft minutes on the municipal website. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns made a last-minute silent campaign to the full House to increase from 5 to 7 days, but we ask that you stand firm for Vermonters. It appears some House members did not understand the full issue.
As noted in our earlier letter by VPA President John Flowers of Middlebury in January, there is no reason to approve the extension. As you can see in that letter establishing two standards for each town and city was unworkable and our biggest concern at that time. It has not changed.
Given the significant number of public meetings in a week, it is impossible for daily and weekly newspapers in Vermont covering several towns to send reporters to all of them. Likewise it is impossible for your constituents to attend all the important meetings. They rely both on Vermont newspapers and town websites for prompt information.
Timely access to meeting minutes of public bodies is critical. If a government board meets on a Wednesday or Thursday, and a weekly newspaper goes to press on Tuesday or Wednesday, lengthening the time beyond the current five-day requirement means taxpayers will be reading information in newspapers two weeks after a public meeting. Some of this meeting information is critical to receive in a timely fashion so taxpayers can offer prompt comments.
Granting this extension also has a negative impact on voters who may not be able to get to the municipal building on the fifth, sixth or seventh day to read the minutes. These voters would include, but not limited to those that are without transportation, those that are handicapped or old and have trouble getting out, those that want to read minutes after hours, those that may be traveling, those that may be facing poor weather, especially in winter and many others. Why make all these voters wait two extra days?
We believe the public’s right to know through the help of the town websites and state’s news organizations trumps whatever perceived “inconvenience” the VLCT alleges a few of its towns believe they might feel.
The reality is that it takes very few key strokes to post minutes on a town website after the recording secretary emails the minutes to the webmaster or town clerk. Yet the League says some towns need 48 hours to complete the two-minute task. VPA members say they have not heard from a single clerk objecting to the five-day period.
Why would the Vermont Legislature create two standards for releasing minutes?
This marks the second time in a year that the VLCT has come in to try to disrupt efforts for greater transparency on meeting minutes. The League officials remained silent during your hearings a year ago about the five-day posting to websites. After the bill was passed, they still remained silent. After the bill was signed by Gov. Shumlin, they remained silent. As the law was going into effect, the VLCT urged towns to take down their websites if they believed they could not comply.
All this did was create more work for some very dedicated town clerks. Suddenly taxpayers wanting answers about voting, zoning permits, signing up for recreation programs, seeking burn permits, licensing dogs and so much more town business required phone calls to the town clerk instead of going to a website. (The extra work created by the move was driven home to the VPA by some clerks.)
And who is to say the Vermont League won’t urge towns this year to take down websites if they cannot comply with the 7-day requirement? If web posting is really such a major problem, why hasn’t the VLCT offered training to the clerks during the past year to help them come into compliance.
As one easy solution the VPA also had proposed towns facing the alleged posting problem could use a local high school student to do the work. What a great internship for a young woman or man to get a first-hand look at local government in action. Maybe they would be a future public servant.
We would ask you to stand firm with your original thinking after hearing all points of view in your committee and maintain the five-day limit that has never been a problem in Vermont. Please join with the VPA and other transparency proponents, including Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, by insisting on the five days.
In closing, we would note that this is one bill that you as a state senator can point to proudly as being on the side of Vermonters. This is a bill that will help taxpayers have greater and prompt access to information they need so better choices can be made.
Michael Donoghue is a member of NEFAC’s board of directors and is executive director of the Vermont Press Association.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.