Yesterday I received a notice from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, Office of Professional Regulation (OPR), informing me (and presumably every other person who is registered as a public notary in Vermont) that there is a new sheriff in town involved in the oversight and regulation of notaries public. Here’s a copy of the notice. All notary registrations are now going to go through OPR and treated just like all the other professions regulated by OPR. That includes registering though the OPR online portal (that will not be live until mid-December).  According to the OPR website, the notary registration process is going to be far, far more complex then what it used to be. The entire notary registration process used to consist of a single page form, submitted to the local county clerk, found at the county courthouse.

This new process comes as the result of a massive legislative change, presumably to provide greater oversight to how notaries are “licensed” and monitored. On its face, modernizing the notary process is a good thing. Attorneys have been hearing reports for years about the impact of poor notary practices on their clients. What is less clear is whether notaries need to be monitored as closely and as aggressively as what we think of as traditional professions, such as dentists, psychologists and nurses.  This is the guidance from the OPR Website:

That’s far, far more information what was previously requested as part of the single page form referenced above.  Even more perplexing, is that notaries will now be subject  to disciplinary action, based on both the unique facets of notary practice, as well as, general disciplinary proceedings that apply to all professions.  For example, notaries are now required to obtain and utilize a physical stamping device (whereas previously a signature was adequate). 26 V.S.A. § 5370(b) provides that “[i]f a notary public’s stamping device is lost or stolen, the notary public or the notary public’s personal representative or guardian shall notify promptly the Office [OPR] on discovering the device is lost or stolen.”  Failure to promptly report constitutes “unprofessional conduct” and may subject the notary to prosecution pursuant to 26 V.S.A. § 5342(a)(5).

However, that’s not the only thing considered “unprofessional conduct.” The new law at 26 V.S.A. § 5342(a)(9) also incorporates 3 V.S.A. § 129a(a) that lists unprofessional conduct applicable to all professions.  This means that notaries who do not inform OPR of a new address in 30 days (3 V.S.A. § 129a(a)(14)) have committed unprofessional conduct and are subject to prosecution. It also means that if a notary is convicted of any criminal offense (this includes things such as DUIs and certain Fish and Game violations), they must report this conviction to OPR within 30 days (3 V.S.A. § 129a(a)(11)) or they have engaged in unprofessional conduct.  Note that this reporting requirement is different from actually being convicted of a crime related to being a notary (such as a fraud) or being convicted of a felony, both of which constitute a separate prosecutable offense (3 V.S.A. § 129a(a)(10)).

The new licensure for notaries will also include exam and continuing education requirements for most notaries, with some exceptions (notably attorneys).  The list of exemptions and exceptions for exams, continuing education and fees can be found at the OPR website here.

Needless to say, I am not sure that the legislature fully contemplated the impact of this legislation given the current state of affairs.  There will also be a set of rules promulgated by OPR, but those are not available as of yet.  And there will be “advisors” appointed by the Secretary of State to oversee and advise OPR on the notary regulatory process, but those advisors have apparently not been appointed yet.

All of this is by way of saying that there are a tremendous amount of changes coming for notaries, who have likely been practicing the same way for decades, if not centuries. The best offense, is a strong defense. When signing up to be a notary, it is important to know what you are getting into. Notaries beware!

We last left off with a broad comparative analysis between the four different professional regulatory systems in Vermont.  Educators, attorneys, physicians and everyone else.  I don’t plan on spending too much time, if any, in this series discussing attorney discipline.  Namely because Bar Counsel Mike Kennedy is far more versed in this area and has already given a great overview of the Vermont attorney disciplinary system in his blog “Ethical Grounds.”  Since the licensing system for Vermont Educators has been in the news as of late, I think it makes sense to start with that model and compare it to some of the others.

One of the interesting things about the disciplinary system for licensed educators, is that as far as I can tell there are no “rules” covering the process of educator discipline. When I use the term rules, I mean in the form of a rule promulgated by an agency, in this case the Agency of Education.  The only thing that comes close is Vermont Agency of Education Rule 5700 which discusses the various types of educator discipline, but not the process of educator discipline.  Contrast this with the Office of Professional Regulation’s Administrative Rules of Practice; The Rules of the Board of Medical Practice; and of course Vermont Supreme Court Administrative Order 9, which governs attorney disciplinary proceedings.

By contrast, the educator disciplinary process in Vermont is governed strictly by statute.  In particular 16 V.S.A. Sections 1698-1708.  Frankly that strikes me as a bit odd. Statutes often provide broad based authority, but later rely on the administrative expertise of a particular agency to flesh out the details. For example at the Federal level, enabling statutes for the EPA are far less detailed then the regulations promulgated pursuant to the authority granted by the statute. The only reason I can think of not to have detailed rules governing a license disciplinary process, is that it makes the process more confusing – – by intention. In other words, it is certainly possible that the various shareholders of the educator licensing process wanted the disciplinary process to be somewhat dysfunctional. The more dysfunctional, the more doubt.  The more doubt, the more likely that the prosecuting authority is unable to meet the requisite burden of proof.

A brief word on the different types of burden of proof.  One could write a whole primer on this issue, but I want to try to keep it simple.  There are essentially three different burdens of proof that are used in various forums.  The first and probably most well known because of its place in popular culture is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  This is the criminal standard and means that a prosecutor needs to convince each an every member of a jury that the accused is guilty, without leaving much room for doubt.  A juror could have “unreasonable doubt” that an accused is innocent, but if that is all, then the prosecution has met its burden.  Courts have refused to assign numerical percentages to burdens of proof, but generally speaking “beyond a reasonable doubt”  would be between 95-99% or so sure that an accused was guilty.  Why is the burden of proof is highest in criminal matters?  Because there is so much at stake concerning liberty and in some states, life interests.

The lowest level burden of proof is by a “preponderance of the evidence” often explained by courts as “more likely then not” that an event occurred.  This is the standard in civil cases and many administrative cases. Again to quantify, it means that the decider of fact is more than 50% certain that an event occurred.

Finally there is an intermediate burden of proof, proof “clear and convincing evidence.”  This is probably the least well known burden of proof, except perhaps for those of us who have received certain traffic and fishing/hunting violations and have had to appear before the Judicial Bureau.  This is evidence that establishes that the “truth of the facts asserted is highly probable.”  It is difficult to quantify, but best guess would be somewhere in the 75-80% range.

Now how does this all relate to the professional disciplinary system?  Professional disciplinary cases against attorneys, pursuant to Administrative Order 9, Rule 11(D)(5)(b) requires proof by “clear and convincing evidence.” Discipline against physicians pursuant to 26 V.S.A. Sec. 1354(c) requires proof by a “preponderance of the evidence.”  Similarly prosecutors in the Office of Professional Regulation, need to prove their cases by a “preponderance of the evidence” pursuant to 3 V.S.A. Sec. 129a(c).

Now licensed educators have a very unique, bifurcated burden of proof. Here’s what the statute, 16 V.S.A. Sec. 1704(b) says: “Alleged unprofessional conduct or incompetence. The burden of proof in matters involving alleged unprofessional conduct or incompetence, including denial of a license based on alleged unprofessional conduct or incompetence, shall be on the Secretary by a preponderance of the evidence, except that in the case of revocation or suspension for more than one year, the proof shall be by clear and convincing evidence.” (Emphasis mine).

Getting back to the guidance counselor from Burlington High School, you will remember that the Agency of Education initially sought a 364 day suspension, just one day short of a year. I suspect (without knowing for sure) that the reason for this, was that the prosecution would have had a lower burden of proof. Now that the charges have been amended and the Agency of Education is seeking a revocation of the guidance counselor’s license, the State will need to prove it s case by “clear and convincing evidence.”

This of course begs the question, why do licensed educators have two separate burdens of proof? Isn’t this confusing? I suspect that as alluded to in Part 1, the answer likely has something to do with politics.  But we can explore that more in a future post. 

The next part of this series will take a look at who has the power to “charge” allegations of unprofessional conduct.

As recently reported by the Burlington Free Press, one of the Burlington High School guidance counselors was charged with six counts of unprofessional conduct.  The initial charges ranged from what I would characterize as employment or personnel issues that on their face do not appear to rise to the level of unprofessional conduct, to the very serious allegation of falsifying a student’s record.  The Vermont Agency of Education initially sought a 364 day suspension of the counselor’s educator’s license.  The original charges were amended to include an additional charge that the Counselor “inappropriately engaged a student witness” and the sanction being sought was increased to a revocation of the Counselor’s license.  It is unknown exactly what encompassed the alleged “inappropriate engagement.”

I am not going to spend time trying to dissect these specific allegations, because I certainly do not know what happened and in addition to the Free Press, Seven Days and Vermont Digger have also spent considerable time covering the story.  Rather, I would like to examine the professional licensing disciplinary procedure that the Vermont Agency of Education utilizes for licensed educators, as contrasted with the disciplinary procedures utilized for nearly every other type of licensed professional.

In addition to the Agency of Education, there are three other paradigms for professional licensing discipline in Vermont (I am not including the licensed trades such as plumbers and electricians in this analysis).  Those licensing agencies include: the Board of Medical Practice (appointed by the governor) that regulates medical doctors and a few other related professions and falls under the aegis of the Vermont Department of Health. The Professional Responsibility Board (appointed by the Vermont Supreme Court) that regulates attorneys and ultimately reports to the Vermont Judiciary, headed up by the Vermont Supreme Court.  And the Vermont Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) an interesting little state agency tucked away in the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office.  OPR acts as an umbrella for approximately 50 different professions, large and small.  In some instances OPR provides services to a gubernatorially appointed licensing board such as the Board of Psychological Examiners and in other instances OPR is the actual licensing entity, working in conjunction with a group of advisors appointed by the Secretary of State such as the licensed midwives.

Full disclosure, I was formerly a prosecuting attorney at OPR, having spent over 10 years there, the last 5 as the Chief Prosecuting Attorney.  I have also assisted clients in matters before the Board of Medical Practice and have been appointed to serve as Special Disciplinary Counsel before a panel of the Professional Responsibility Board.  My purpose in writing this series is to start a dialogue about professional licensing in Vermont.

The first question a reader may have is – – why are there four separate licensing entities?  That’s a great question and likely has to do with an amalgamation of history, separation of powers and context. Harder to establish, but entirely plausible, are the varying amounts of power each of these professions wield regarding the legislative and judicial process. The three “carve-out” professions (lawyers, doctors and teachers) all have dedicated lobbyists tied to their respective professional organizations – – The Vermont Bar Association – – The Vermont Medical Society – – and The Vermont National Education Association.

As we will see in this series, the process of professional licensing and discipline has been shaped and carved differently for each of the four professional licensing models, based on both legal and political influences, as well as public opinion.  In part two, we will be discussing how disciplinary charges arise in each one of the professional licensing forums.

If you have any burning questions regarding the various professional licensing disciplinary processes, please feel free to get in touch with me and I will attempt to integrate an answer into this series.

There’s been plenty of press coverage about the Burlington School Board’s Emergency Meeting that was held at 9:00 PM this past Sunday. Sunday also happened to be both Easter and April Fools’ Day. Vermont Digger’s headline characterized the meeting as delaying the release of an ongoing racial bias investigation, while the Burlington Free Press, alluded to whether the meeting itself, as warned and conducted, constituted a violation of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law. The media reports indicate that: 1) there was about 3 hours notice for the meeting; 2) concerns were raised by the School District’s attorney regarding the legality of the meeting; and 3) the nature of the emergency, is that the investigative report for the alleged incident had been completed at 5:30 PM that same day. It is also notable that a number of the Board members had either not run for re-election or had lost their election and their terms were expiring on April 2nd.

Without knowing more of the details, it’s not practicable to give a thoughtful analysis of the actual situation presented by the Burlington Board’s April 1st meeting. As a Burlington resident, I do have a number of unanswered questions about this specific situation including: 1) Why was the investigative report completed at 5:30 PM on Easter Sunday? 2) Who was the person who delayed the process by allegedly refusing to be interviewed? 3) What kind of pressures where placed on that person to cooperate? 4) How the few people who did show up were alerted to the meeting given the late notice (I mean are people really checking the Burlington School District’s website at 6 PM on Easter Sunday or was it pushed out on social media or some other forum)? 5) And of course what do the findings of the investigation entail? Answers to those questions will need to wait until we know more.

What can be answered, not specific to this particular instance, is what constitutes an “emergency” under Vermont Law, such that the Emergency Session provisions of the Open Meeting Law can be satisfied. The ability of a public body to hold emergency sessions in Vermont can be found under 1 V.S.A. 312(b)(3) which states that “[e]mergency meetings may be held without public announcement, without posting of notices, and without 24-hour notice to members, provided some public notice thereof is given as soon as possible before such meeting. Emergency meetings may be held only when necessary to respond to an unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention by the public body.”

The Vermont Supreme Court has repeatedly held that when construing  a statute, if a definition is not included within the statute itself, then we turn to the plain, ordinary meeting of a word. An emergency is defined by Merriam-Webster as “1) an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action; 2) an urgent need for assistance or relief.”  The key to the analysis of defining emergency is whether or not an event was unforeseen. Conversely, unforeseen is defined as “not anticipated or expected.”  In a hypothetical situation, it seems difficult to imagine that a public entity that is expecting something to happen could characterize it as unforeseen. Public boards set agendas and meetings all the time and then need to cancel those meetings or amend the agendas because a prerequisite event failed to occur on time.

The Vermont Secretary of State’s Office has advised that emergency sessions are not available unless there is a “true emergency.” Of course one person’s “true emergency” may not necessarily be another’s.

The Vermont Supreme Court has not really addressed the issue of what constitutes a valid Emergency Session head on. It did rule in Katz v. South Burlington School District, 209 VT 6, that the South Burlington School Board, in considering an early separation agreement for its then superintendent, at an Emergency Meeting, held in executive session, that “any procedural violations of the open meeting law were effectively cured,” when the school board later held an properly warned open meeting and took action on the same issue.

The Open Meeting Law also has a “cure” provision set forth in 1 V.S.A. 314 that requires a person who feels they have been aggrieved by a violation of the Open Meeting Law to first notify the public body and request a cure.  The public body can also admit a violation and offer their own cure.  As set forth above, the Vermont Supreme Court as held that subsequently ratifying the actions of a meeting that violates the Open Meeting Law, at a meeting that comports with it, should cure a violation.

The cure provision of the Open Meetings Law because of its structure, appears to be geared towards unintentional violations. Knowing and intentional violations of the Law are subject to a $500 fine, that per the statute is not just a fine, but a criminal misdemeanor. There is a well developed body of law as to whether facts and circumstances demonstrate a person’s mens rea (the intention or knowledge of person accused of committing a criminal offense). Determination of knowledge and intent is very fact specific, but clearly the more information and facts a board has before it acts, the more knowledge and intent can be imputed.

Time will tell if the Emergency Meeting of the Burlington School Board was a legal one. We need to know more about the facts and circumstances. And whether it was a politically sound decision is of course a different discussion for a different blog.

If any of you have ever baked bread, you know that you are only supposed to knead the dough for so long before it starts to impact the quality of the final product. Some things aren’t meant to be touched, if at all.  Related to this is the old Vermont proverb, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Sometimes a client will come into the office and we’ll decide the best thing to do in a particular situation is nothing at all. And that’s my position on many of the changes being proposed to Vermont’s Open Meeting Law (OML) and Public Records Act (PRA).

If there is something broken about the PRA it is the applicability to both the State and the political subdivisions thereof, also know as municipalities. Not that municipalities shouldn’t be subject to the PRA, it is just that the PRA as it now exists was written around requests to State Government, not Local Government. Here are a couple of obvious examples. Who is the “head of the agency” (this head of agency language is replicated in the newly proposed revisions to the PRA as well) in respect to municipal government under 1 V.S.A. § 318(a)(3) of the PRA? A town manager? An individual selectboard member?  The entire selectboard? How about this, what are intradepartmental and interdepartmental communications in respect to a municipality under1 V.S.A. § 317(a)(17)? How may municipalities in Vermont have departments?

But I digress. The latest proposed changes to the PRA and the OML fly in the face of sound public policy and take us closer to an Orwellian Surveillance State. How you ask?  Well lets look at some of the proposed changes.

New language offered defines a “meeting” in part as “each communication within a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss or take action on any business of the public body, even if the individual communication does not involve a quorum of the public body.”  That effectively means that selectboard members can no longer get together informally, in groups less then a quorum and then discuss the results of that meeting with anyone else, because how are they going to be able to regulate the dissemination of that discussion beyond the initial group? In larger towns and cities where there are regular caucuses held with less then a quorum, intermediaries will no longer be able to discuss the caucus results with anyone outside of the caucus. Remember, selectboard members are civically engaged, volunteer members of the community. You can only imagine the additional chilling effect this will have on the ability to recruit people to run for these types of positions.

One of the proposed changes to the PRA prohibits any type of fee from being charged for copying records, beyond the physical cost of copying providing “that an agency shall not charge or collect a fee for staff time spent searching for a public record or otherwise include this time when calculating fees…” Public records requests can involve sorting through 10s or 100s or 1000s or even 10s of thousands of emails and other types of documents. That takes time. Right now, the schedule set by the Vermont Secretary of State allows for a charge of 57 cents for each minute of senior-level staff time. For those of you not great at math, that’s $34.20 an hour. And that’s also applicable to the State which carries out its duties “in-house.”  What about when a municipality has to hire outside help to comply with a large and/or complex record request?

The pièce de résistance of the proposed changes to the PRA and OML involves the creation of an “Open Government Ombudsman.” Now that sounds fantastic! The Ombudsman is hired by the Ethics Commission that I blogged about here. The same Ethics Commission that is supposed to be overseeing transparency and open government, according to the State Library Website, recently held a “special” public meeting, at a private law firm. In addition, as far as I can tell, as of the date of this publication, the Ethics Commission still does not have a working website (at least not one that I could readily find based on several Google searches).

The new legislation gives the Ombudsman very broad and far reaching powers. In particular, the Ombudsman may “receive and investigate complaints on behalf of persons seeking records under the Public Records Act or compliance with the Open Meeting Law. The Ombudsman shall have authority to compel, by subpoena, the attendance and testimony of witnesses and the production of books and records, and 3 V.S.A. §§ 809a and 809b shall apply to all subpoenas issued under this subdivision.” However, as best as I can tell from the current revisions, there is no forum in which the Ombudsman will actualize these powers. When I say forum, I mean a tribunal such as a court or board or hearing officer, where due process requirements can be satisfied and the matter fairly adjudicated. For example, where are those witnesses going to be testifying?  The Ombudsman is a prosecutor, without a court.

But wait, the new changes state that not only does the Ombudsman investigate matters, he or she will also “adjudicate questions of compliance [with the PRA or OML] by issuing a binding written determination.” (Emphasis mine).  So the Ombudsman is the investigator, prosecutor and judge? Hmmm, where have we seen this before?  But wait there’s a savings clause. The new amendments provide that a “party to an Open Meeting Law or a Public Records Act dispute is entitled to refuse to participate in mediation under subdivision (4) of this section and to refuse to submit to an adjudication under this subdivision.”  Does that mean the whole process is voluntary (and therefore meaningless) or just that the governmental entity cannot be compelled to participate in the adjudication, but still have to deal with the consequences of an adverse adjudication?

The amendments require the Ombudsman to “establish policies and procedures for receiving, investigating, mediating, and adjudicating Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act complaints and disputes.”  Those policies and procedures should prove to be fascinating.

Looks like there’s still much work to be done.  And it remains to be seen, but the heaviest lifting may yet be by person or persons who point out that the best path to take in this instance would be by declining to go down the garden path at all.

There was old Odd Couple Show courtroom scene where Felix Unger expounded upon the dangers of “assuming.” I’d encourage you to watch it because it provides an important context for the premise of this post.

Most people may have some experience with the term “off the record” as it applies to the media. Presumably that experience is not personal because most people do not speak with the media on a regular basis and on the off chance that they are being interviewed for a story, its likely to be a human interest story and there would be no reason to speak off the record.

Regular consumers of the 24 hour news cycle may have been surprised to read that reporter and author Michael Wolff is alleged to have published excerpts in his new book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” from sources who thought that they were speaking “off the record.”

Here’s a good general rule of thumb to live by, when communicating with anyone, in person, on the phone, via email, on social media, direct message, text, etc… presume that anything you say can and will be repeated and maybe even recorded and/or distributed. A brief detour. In respect to recording, approximately 11 states require all parties in a conversation to consent to being recorded and to do so without consent is a potential crime. The rest of the states require only one party to consent to a conversation being recorded. Interestingly, Vermont appears to be the only state that does not have a specific statue one way or another and there is no clear case law on the issue ( State v. Geraw, ruled that clandestine recording in a person’s home is illegal, while State v. Brooks held that it is OK to eavesdrop on a conversation taking place in a parking lot).

Last year the Vermont Legislature, passed what’s been referred to as the so called “Reporter’s Shield Law” or “Journalist’s Privilege.” Among other things, the new law allows reporters to refuse to disclose or be compelled from disclosing the name of a source to any branch of government, in respect to pretty much every type of tribunal. But just because reporters cannot be compelled by the government to reveal a source, does not mean that a reporter is bound by law from disclosing that same source voluntarily, for any reason.

The Associated Press (AP) has set very clear principles in respect to anonymous sources. Here are a few excerpts from those principles (emphasis mine):


“Reporters should proceed with interviews on the assumption they are on the record. If the source wants to set conditions, these should be negotiated at the start of the interview. At the end of the interview, the reporter should try once again to move some or all of the information back on the record.”

“Not everyone understands “off the record” or “on background” to mean the same things. Before any interview in which any degree of anonymity is expected, there should be a discussion in which the ground rules are set explicitly.

The AP Principles define sourcing as follows:

On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.

Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.

Background. The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record. These background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials.

Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.

In general, information obtained under any of these circumstances can be pursued with other sources to be placed on the record.


These principles are also reflected in in the Society of Professional Journalists “position papers.” Principles and position papers are wonderful, but also nearly meaningless when it comes to legal enforceability (unlike a law, statute, rule, regulation or code which are almost aways enforceable in a professional or legal context).

So much of life is built on trust, but as President Reagan famously stated using a repurposed a Russian proverb “Trust, but verify.”  

When speaking with the media make sure that expectations are agreed to upfront. Make sure the reporter specifically agrees to speak “off the record” and make sure to define what that term means for that reporter. Beware of live or recorded (TV or radio) interviews, where “off the record” is virtually nonexistent and difficult to achieve. Don’t be afraid to tell a reporter that you will get back to her or him and in the meantime take the opportunity to seek advice or discuss the contents of the interview with someone else. If you are really concerned, conduct an interview and agree to its terms only via email. Or ask the reporter if he or she minds if you record your conversation (this is a courtesy and as set forth above, probably not legally required).

Those who regularly interact with the media, have usually developed relationships with reporters and both sides know the rules of engagement and if they fail to follow those rules they do so at their own peril. For everyone else, it doesn’t hurt to make sure that all sides share similar expectations.

A few months ago I attended the first meeting of of the Vermont Ethics Commission and blogged about it here (incidentally if you know how to locate the Commission’s website, please drop me a line, I haven’t been able to find it). During the course of that meeting I engaged in an exchange with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office about executive officers and state employees getting guidance of a confidential nature from the Commission. The Secretary of State tweeted that “transparency isn’t always the answer…. some exceptions are OK.”

I couldn’t agree more. The question is where the line gets drawn. The fact of the matter is that the Public Records Act (PRA) and its federal counterpart the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)(incidentally it is a pet peeve of mine when people use FOIA as shorthand for the PRA since they contain different standards are are subject to a different body of case law, interpretation and precedent) are increasingly being weaponized. There are those that might argue that the weaponization is a price we pay for a free society, but I’m not so sure.

Over the past week or so there have been two noteworthy examples where both the PRA and FOIA were turned on their respective heads. The first story, as reported by the New York Times, comes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) where career employees who are speaking out about the alleged harm being wrought by current Administration, are having their emails scrutinized — by political operatives with what appears to be an intent to suppress and intimidate. For example the emails sent by a career EPA employee on his last day of work, were requested under FOIA and within the emails the departing employee rebuked the practices of the Administration and indicated to the recipient list that he knew that they shared his views. So while that employee is now presumably collecting his retirement, his colleagues left behind are now potentially subject to additional scrutiny, for an action that they had no control over.

Here in our little corner of the woods, reported by VT Digger (which reminds me I need to send a contribution to the Digger year end fundraising campaign STAT) things took a interesting turn under the PRA. Evidently an confidential report on public safety communications was released to the press without permission. According to Digger, John Quinn, the Chief Information Officer of Vermont, admonished the Public Safety Broadband Commission stating that “I fully expect a public records request of all commission members and members with access to the report, to turn over any communication between commission members and Stephen Whitaker,” ……“You are all subject to the records law as a commission member.”  While I would’t exactly call this a weaponization of the PRA, it clearly represents a unique utilization of the law, wherein the Executive Branch of government is essentially telling one of its many working parts that the PRA can and will be used “against” it. It will be interesting to see whether the Commission members have state issued email addresses or if they use their own. That of course represents a whole host of other issues that were recently touched on right here.

PRA requests come with real costs – – political, financial, societal etc. This is especially the case at the municipal level in Vermont where resources and expertise are by design not as plentiful as the state and federal government, but the PRA applies just the same. We are obviously going through an unusual period in history where “normal” conventions are no longer the norm. The Vermont Supreme Court has long held that “identity and motive of the requestor cannot be considered when weighing access to public documents.” Shlansky v. City of Burlington, 2010 VT 90, ¶ 11 (citing Finberg v. Murnane, 159 Vt. 431, 437 (1992)). Maybe it is time to reconsider that proposition, maybe not. But the opportunity to weigh in is coming up as according to the Secretary of State’s Office, the legislature is looking at a rewrite of Vermont Open Meetings and Public Records Laws in this upcoming session.  Stay tuned…..

We are once again heading into an election year. And as with any election cycle, there are perils and pitfalls that candidates and government employees need to be aware of. One of the least known, but at the same time most consequential laws impacting elections and candidates is the Hatch Act of 1939. The Hatch Act was initially implemented as the U.S. pulled itself out of the Depression and lunged headfirst into WW II as a mechanism to attempt to curb corruption within the Federal Government.

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from: 1) Running for partisan office; 2) taking an active part in a partisan campaign; 3) using their official authority to influence an election; 4) soliciting or receiving money in connection with a partisan candidate or election; 5) engaging in political activity while on duty or in a Federal Building.

Just the other day, the former Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics, filed a complaint against Trump Aide Kellyanne Conway, claiming that her statements about the Alabama Senate Race violate the Hatch Act.  Time will tell if his complaint has any teeth or if it will even be acted upon.

Don’t stop reading if you’re not a federal employee, because here’s where things get interesting from a Vermont perspective.  The Hatch Act also applies to state, municipal and in some limited instances even non-profit employees. The good news is that with the passage of the Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012 (yes Act is repeated twice) the constraints on state and municipal employees have been severely curtailed. It used to be the case that many state or municipal employees whose position was even partially supported by federal funds, was subject to the terms of the Hatch Act in respect to running for partisan office.  With the passage of the 2012 amendments, in order to be covered by Hatch Act, an employee’s position needs to be completely funded by federal loans or grants.

So what’s the big deal with the Hatch Act you ask?  Well if an individual is found to have violated the Hatch Act, the penalty is severe. Either the agency employing the individual has to forfeit federal funds equivalent to 2 years of the employees salary or terminate the employee. You can guess the route that most governmental entities take when faced with a decision between the two.

In a state like Vermont, which receives quite a bit of federal funds, its entirely likely that dozens, if not hundreds of state and municipal employees, even with the 2012 amendments, are still covered by the provisions of the Hatch Act. There was once a time when prior to filing a formal complaint against an employee in Vermont, he or she might have received a caution or warning from an adversary. With the hyper-politicalization of today’s environment, this courtesy is likely going the way of the dinosaurs. Those engaged in partisan politics are increasingly out for blood. As a result, the Hatch Act is being increasingly weaponized, especially since it utilizes an anonymous complaint system, where the complainant is kept confidential (so much for being able to face one’s accuser).

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is the administrative agency (independent of the Department of Justice) that investigates Hatch Act complaints. If you are a state or municipal employee in Vermont, and you have any doubt whatsoever as to whether your position is subject to the Hatch Act, the wisest thing to do before taking any other step towards starting a partisan campaign for office (or engaging in any other prohibited activity) is getting an advisory opinion from the OSC as to whether you are subject to the Hatch Act’s terms.

As a final note, remember the Hatch Act applies only to partisan elections, meaning elections where designation of a political party is a part of the process. That means that it is not applicable to most municipal elections (school board and selectboard) in Vermont (the notable exception being the Burlington City Council), but it is of course applicable to running for state representative or state senate or any county or statewide election that is partisan in nature. And remember, if you plan on running as an independent, it doesn’t matter if others can run in the same contest with a party designation, the Hatch Act is applicable.

Finally, even under the terms of the 2012 amendments to the Hatch Act, state and municipal employees who receive even small amounts of Federal funding who engage in political misconduct such as: 1) using Federal monies to support a campaign; 2) using any equipment, resources or power of office to support a candidacy; and 3) asking subordinates to volunteer or contribute to a campaign, can still be prosecuted under the Act’s terms.

Good luck out there candidates and remember, in politics, as in sports, the best offense is a strong defense…..

The purpose of this blog is not supposed to be political, its a forum to discuss ethics and government in Vermont. If you want politics, you can check out my political blog over at Sugaring Off. With that said, it’s important to discuss the ethical dilemmas (and the associated procedural and policy hurdles) faced by the Burlington City Council last night as it decided who would be the new purchaser for Burlington Telecom. Again for a bit of history on the subject, I’d refer you to Sugaring Off.

With history out of the way, it becomes important to unpack exactly what transpired during the course of the Burlington City Council’s eight hour marathon session.  On November 13, 2017 the die was cast or so we were told by way of this Resolution that set a bidding process in place and brought back bidders who had already been previously excluded by the Council.  Bids called (“letters of intent” or LOI’s) were due “no later than November 20 at 9 a.m.”  Now that’s a pretty specific time on a pretty specific date.

Mayor Weinberger and Councilors

Instead what happened is that the Council opened up with a work session at approximately 5:30 PM in which both of the previous failed bidders, Schurz who teamed up with ZRF, offered commentary not only on their newly submitted bid that was published in time, but then continued to expand on the initial bid, on-the-fly, at the work session. Despite a number of well directed questions from a number of different councilors, there were still many questions left unanswered. One of the big questions left unanswered was raised by Taylor Dobbs, formerly of VPR and soon to be of Seven Days, which is how could the Council agree to sell an asset like BT, where the identities of the investors were unknown? There were a number of breaks that the Council took where councilors broke-up into what appeared to be ad hoc caucuses. Now so long as there was not a quorum (the Council rules define a quorum as a majority of the whole, in the case of a 12 member body 7 or more members) of the Council present. If a quorum isn’t present then the provisions of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law don’t kick in. But remember, laws set the baseline for conduct, not the ceiling. While breaking up into pods may have been legal, as a matter of policy, it was a poor decision. And as a matter of public perception and political intrigue, the optics were horrible, not to mention how future entities seeking to do business with Burlington will construe how Ting and KBTL were treated.

Ting Executives – Michael Goldstein and Monica Webb

If that wasn’t bad enough, what happened next was even worse. Schurz and ZRF came back to the Council, at 11:00 PM, after seemingly having negotiated a new deal out in the hallway and proposed a number of new terms, changed some of the old terms AND changed the lead entity on the bid from ZRF to Schurtz. Remember bids were due on November 20th at 9 AM and here was a new bid, with new terms being proposed at an hour where the Council (and likely a good chunk of the City) is normally in bed and required to the Council to “suspend the rules” (Council meetings end at 10:30 unless 2/3s of the Council votes to suspend the rules).  That bid likely generated this lede from Seven Days – “The Burlington City Council voted 8-2 early Tuesday to select Schurz Communications and ZRF Partners’ bid to buy Burlington Telecom — picking an option that was not on the table at the start of a lengthy and at times testy meeting.” And this one from VT Digger “Burlington Telecom will be sold to Schurz Communications — a last-minute arrangement decided through backdoor political maneuvering at a Burlington City Council meeting. The meeting, which ended in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, was rife with confusion and marked by outbursts.”  Now as a City, a municipal corporation, is that really the kind of publicity you want to be generating if you can avoid it?

Councilor Ali Dieng Questioning the City Attorney

At one point New North End Councilor Dieng referenced an email exchange that he had with the Burlington City Attorney. The essence of his claim was that the City Attorney had informed him that no new bids or altered bids would be allowed after November 20th. I do not know the contents of those emails, but Councilor Dieng’s statements raise a legitimate concern. Look as attorneys we are not perfect. We try to give our clients the best advice possible based on the facts and circumstances at the time that it is given. Advice can change with facts and circumstances. This recent Vermont Supreme Court case out of Winooski held that even if a “charter designates the city attorney as legal advisor to the city manager, it is settled in Vermont and other states that the actual client of the city attorney is the municipality.” The actual client of the city attorney is the city. Now imagine being the city attorney in Burlington. Your client is the City, you are hired and retained by the Mayor and your have 12 partisan Councilors continually asking questions about policy and process. Some decisions are bound to be Solomonic. And to make things even more complicated, any individual councilor can request that their inquiry be kept confidential pursuant to Council Rule 19.

Ultimately the Council didn’t even follow the voting method set forth in their own resolution of that very evening, requiring Councilors to vote for two of the competing entities in the first round of voting. The City Attorney then ruled at the meeting that Councilors couldn’t be forced to vote. Council Rule 16(3) requires – “All requests for resolutions, ordinance and miscellaneous materials, to be prepared by the city attorney must be in the City Attorney’s hands by twelve o’clock noon on the fourth business day (normally Tuesday) preceding a regular, or adjourned regular meeting.” Furthermore, “[t]he city attorney shall deliver to the office of the city clerk all resolutions or ordinances to be submitted no later than twelve o’clock noon of the second business day, (normally Thursday) preceding a regular, or adjourned regular meeting.” Which of course begs the question, how come if the resolution had to be submitted in advance, the issue of voting was not clarified earlier?

One final thought. There was an instance where Councilor Hartnett interrupted Councilor Shannon several times during debate and claimed she was “out of control and going down the wrong path” and later that she was expounding “bullshit.”  This type of engagement has no place in a civil democratic process. There are rules of procedure, but it is up to the Council President or Presiding Officer (in this case the Chief Administrative Officer Beth Anderson was presiding over the meeting because President Knodell wanted to participate in debate) to maintain order and decorum. For an interesting read, take a look at this memorandum written several years ago by the City Attorney’s Office on the way decorum can be kept at Council meetings.

Like politics – – policy and procedure is a complicated game and ethics just adds to the difficulty of keeping the balls in the air. Although this isn’t the blog where I usually expound on pop-culture, it’s clear that the current game the City is playing is a strange one and that the only winning move is….. not to play……

 

The Caladonian Record ran an interesting piece this past weekend entitled “Public Records Request: Blittersdorf Says Standard Will Cost Him $1 Million.”  Although the Record is behind a paywall, the gist of the article was relatively straight forward in that it called into question the ways in which lobbyists seek to influence lawmakers. The article was in part premised on a public records request made by Annette Smith, the Executive Director of the group “Vermonters for a Clean Environment” or VCE. The records request, results of which are posted on the VCE Blog asked for records from the State Senators and Representatives on the legislative committee overseeing the new wind turbine regulations.

What caught my eye was this quote from Smith in the Record “[t]he text messages showed that the lobbyists were telling the legislators questions to ask. This is not unusual, what is unusual is actually seeing the communications.” What struck me as additionally unusual was the informality of the communications within the text messages.

The relationship between the lobbyists and the legislators is nothing new. Although I may at some point take the time to connect the dots between the lobbyists in the emails and the legislators they are communicating with, its not really the subject of this post (nor am I an investigative reporter).

I go back and forth in respect to the “weaponization” of the Public Records Act, sometimes thinking is it for the greater good and at other times believing it discourages average residents from engaging in pubic service. For example if you are volunteering on a board in a small town, is it really fair to have to respond to a public records request covering hundreds or potentially thousands of pages? What’s interesting about the VCE request is that in some instances the legislative council responds, in others the individual legislator responds. And in several instances the disclosure states that legislator X is providing the records but they could “have asserted arguments to withhold them.”

The legislative process is often described as akin to the sausage-making process. In both instances, although the final result is often appreciated, it is somewhat discouraging (and often revolting) when the ingredients are revealed in exquisite detail.