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Adrian: Transparency

On July 1st new changes to Vermont’s open meetings law went into effect in an effort to bring the law into conformity with 21st Century expectations.

The Meetings Law and its sister legislation the Public Records Act hold public bodies accountable to the people.

The Vermont Constitution states “that all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.” The Records Act recognizes this necessity even if creates “inconvenience or embarrassment.”

The Meetings Law applies to both state and municipal entities, but as a practical matter, the new changes are likely to have a far greater impact on Vermont’s towns and cities. And the law’s goal to achieve greater transparency is well intentioned, but any gains in transparency are likely to come at the expense of decreased citizen participation.

The Meetings Law now allows one or more members of a public body to attend a meeting telephonically or electronically. This is a good thing.

But the Meetings Law also requires all public bodies that have a website, to post the meeting minutes to the website within five days of a meeting – and this may not be such a good thing. In effect, 19th Century style meeting minutes are being utilized in the 21st Century, when a far better, simpler solution would be to require the posting of an electronic recording of the meeting.

Although the law does not distinguish between state public bodies and municipal public bodies, there are certainly some fundamental differences. At the state level, members of public bodies are sometimes well compensated for their service and are almost always supported by paid, often full-time professional advisors and assistants who have enough time and resources to help insure compliance with the transparency laws.

But dozens of small towns rely almost exclusively on resident good will and sense of civic duty in order to staff hundreds of municipal public entities.

Noncompliance of public bodies and their members with the extensive requirements of the new transparency laws may result in criminal prosecution or the payment of extensive fees. And while this makes sense when applied at the state level, it makes less sense when applied to strictly volunteer local organizations.

Vermont has a long and proud history of volunteer public service. It would be a shame if the new law discourages public participation by placing local officials in the position of constantly worrying about compliance and continual scrutiny of both their public and personal lives.

Indeed, it may not be too far fetched to imagine a day when public officials in Montpelier and Island Pond alike, could be required to wear a Google Glass or similar instrument when going to the farmer’s market in order to make sure that no conversation about public business goes unrecorded.

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