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.

As previously advertised, yesterday I had the pleasure of observing the inaugural meeting of the Vermont Ethics Commission. As one would expect in a first meeting, most of the discussion was centered around the nuts and bolts of the work that the Commission has before it in the months ahead. Since the Commission, like most similarly situated entities in Vermont are volunteers who get compensated for milage, lunch, a $50 per diem and a hardy “thank you for your public service” the most pressing issue facing the Commission is hiring a Executive Director, who will carry out the vast majority of the Commission’s day to day functions.

So what does the Commission do? At the onset, not all that much. The enabling statute really sets out more of an advisory, gatekeeper roll, with no enforcement powers. While the Commission will have the ability to accept and screen ethics complaints, any complaint with legs will need to be referred out to the appropriate regulatory entity. Since the Commission is an independent (in that it does not report to the Governor) entity of the Executive Branch, compliance with referrals to the legislature (based on allegations concerning legislators) and judiciary (based on allegations concerning government attorneys and judges) is essentially based on the good will of the receiving branch of government. Campaign finance questions get referred to the Attorney General (or theoretically State’s Attorney, but this seems unlikely) and allegations in respect to the to-be-drafted Department of Human Resources’ (DHR) Employee Code of Ethics get sent to Department.

FUN FACT: The DHR is in the process of drafting its own Code of Ethics, at the same time the Commission is charged with drafting a State Code of Ethics in consultation with DHR. Did you follow that? Two codes of ethics. Why do we need two codes of ethics regulating state employees you ask? Well it seems that at least the Commission’s Code will be more of an aspirational guideline, then something that can be used for enforcement purposes.

Another provision of the law concerns the “required” disclosure by candidates for statewide and legislative offices of: 1) sources of personal income; 2) 10% or greater corporate ownership; 3) leases and contracts with the State; 4) a copy of the IRS 1040 tax returns; and 5) any board that the candidate sits on.  Oh and most of these provisions also apply to the candidate’s spouse/domestic partner (a wrinkle that begs for its own blog post).  But here’s the kicker, although the controlling statute states that the candidate “shall” file these disclosures, there is no penalty for not filing the disclosures. Evidently the legislature decided to leave it to the political process, instead of the legal process to figure out the effect of non-compliance.

Campaign finance disclosure “requirements.”

One of the more perplexing outtakes of the meeting is that the Commission can provide written “guidance” to officers and employees, but that the guidance received is confidential (thus creating an exemption to the Vermont Public Records Act) unless the requestor decides to make it public. Now I can understand taking out identifying information (name, agency, etc.) in the guidance, but I would think it is ultimately of fundamental importance that the public be informed of the type of ethics advice being provided by the Commission, to state employees. At the most basic level, if this information is withheld how is the public supposed to evaluate whether the Commission is serving its intended purpose? Especially since in this instance it appears as though that purpose is focused on education and training, rather than penalties and enforcement. When I raised this issue on Twitter, the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office chimed in about encouraging employees to ask for help and acknowledged that in respect to the Public Records Act “transparency isn’t always the answer…some exceptions are ok.” This was an interesting and appreciated comment from an office currently on its 4th annual Transparency Tour. More thoughts on this in an upcoming post.

The Commission has its work cut out for it. Hiring a Executive Director; convincing the public that education and training (rather than enforcement) will be enough; and getting a viable, working entity up and running by January 1, 2018 (the date the powers of the Commission go into effect). I for one am looking forward to following the Commission’s progress to see if it can succeed in this endeavor, within the parameters it’s been given.