Thursday May 05, 2016
Since the South Burlington City Council reorganized in March, Chair Helen Riehle and her fellow councilors have identified better communication with the public as a top priority. Councilors, recognizing that it is not always convenient for people to attend the meetings in person, want to give residents a chance to be heard via numerous channels.
City council meetings are open to the public, and information from the meetings is available through a number of sources. The city records each meeting, and written minutes are posted on their website, CCTV videotapes meetings and makes the recordings available to view on Channel 17 as well as on their website. And every meeting is summarized in The Other Paper, along with related in-depth coverage of current city topics.
If residents have a question, comment, or concern, they can reach each of the councilors individually by phone, e-mail or letter. Citizens can speak at a meeting or post a question to one of the city’s current Facebook pages.
However, the council has begun to wonder, if they could be doing more to reach out. The idea of developing a South Burlington City Council Facebook page has been discussed at several recent council meetings. However, questions, mainly regarding how Vermont’s open meeting law could come into play, have given councilors enough pause to ask their legal counsel, Jim Barlow, for more information.
At the April 18 meeting, Barlow gave an overview of the state’s open meeting law. The law addresses a meeting as defined as a gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of discussing the business of that body. According to the law, “The intent of the law is to create transparency in government by requiring advance public notice and an opportunity for public participation in governmental decisions.”
The law requires that meetings are publicly announced and posting of agendas must be done for every regular and special meeting. Public comment must be allowed and minutes must be taken and made available five days after the meeting. E-mail and written correspondence have applicable exceptions though.
According to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, “The law does not apply to written correspondence or electronic communication between members of a public body for the purpose of scheduling a meeting, organizing an agenda, or distributing materials to discuss at a meeting, provided that such written correspondence or such an electronic communication that results in written or recorded information shall be available for inspection and copying under Vermont’s Public Records Law.”
In terms of social media, where several councilors could be involved in a conversation thread, Barlow did not specifically state whether or not councilors would be in violation of the law, but he did say that three of five councilors discussing an item would technically comprise a quorum. He asked, “Was that conversation warned? Were minutes taken? Those are some of the fundamental problems of all social media.”
Additionally, City Manager Kevin Dorn pointed out that it is a matter of perception; if the public cannot participate, a perception of a violation of the law could occur, which according to Barlow is a misdemeanor. Barlow added too, that the city already has seven active Facebook pages: one for the city, the library, public works, the police department, recreation and parks, City Center, and the fire department. Since the law does not address social media involvement in specificity, Barlow recommended the council review a social media policy he helped craft when he worked for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Barlow said they could use it as a template for creating their own.
The council agreed to do their homework on the policy and continue the conversation at their next meeting.
Possible Open Meeting Law Concerns Disclosed
After consideration of Barlow’s April 18 presentation, Tom Chittenden realized that one of his interactions on the South Burlington Community Watch Facebook page could have been perceived as being in violation of the open meeting law, and he provided a statement to that end at the May 2 council meeting. He also provided a copy of the comment thread in which three other councilors had participated in early April: Helen Riehle, Meaghan Emery, and Tim Barritt.
Going forward, Chittenden wrote, he will “refrain from responding or positing to any post in this public forum where another currently serving councilor has already contributed an opinion on city business.”
Chittenden added that he would urge the state to reconsider its current open meeting laws to accommodate changes to communication outlets and his desire for “open and accessible government.”
Chair Helen Riehle thanked him for the statement and admitted that she probably falls into the same category.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent