A fine distinction on the Open Meeting Law

Hey, remember the POOP Council? The Governor’s unfortunately-acronym’d advisory council on Pathways Out Of Poverty?

Well, it has unsurprisingly acquired a new name — Pathways From Poverty — and has just begun to do its work. And a friend of GMD dropped me a line about something that happened at its most recent meeting.

The gist of it was this: Agency of Human Services attorney Ken Schatz addressed the Council on the subject of the Open Meeting Law. He contended that the Law did not apply to advisory councils such as PFP, but that the Governor wanted PFP to voluntarily abide by the Law with one significant exception: Whenever the PFP meets with the Governor himself, the meeting would be closed.

Confirmation from Chris Curtis, PFP co-chair and attorney with Vermont Legal Aid. “[Schatz] advised that the Council is technically exempt from the Open Meeting Law, but the Governor would like us to observe it.” Except, he added, when the Governor is present.

“I expect the idea is that the Governor would be able to have a free and frank exchange” in a closed meeting, Curtis said.

On the one hand, I can see the rationale. On the other, it sounds very much like Vice President Dick Cheney’s argument for secrecy surrounding his infamous oil-industry-heavy Energy Task Force, convened in the early days of the Bush Administration.

After the jump: Shumlin’s office responds.

Shumlin spokesflack Sue Allen confirmed Schatz’ reasoning (that advisory councils are exempt), and said the same standard had applied in the Dean and Douglas Administrations: “The philosophy is that it’s much easier to give candid advice to the Governor when there’s not a TV camera in your face.”

She added that “we’d be happy to accommodate a change if the Council wants it,” but the Administration would not initiate such a move. Curtis gave no indication that closed meetings with the Governor would trouble PFP members, so the status quo appears to be in no danger.

Here’s what the Vermont Secretary of State’s website has to say about which bodies must abide by the Open Meeting Law.

This open meeting law applies to all boards, councils and commissions of the state and its political sub-divisions (i.e. municipalities), including subcommittees of these bodies. This means the open meeting law governs meetings of selectboards, planning commissions, boards of civil authority, recreation commissions, municipal public library trustees, auditors, listers, etc.

“…all boards, councils and commissions of the state” would seem to be broadly inclusive. But according to Schatz and Allen, advisory councils have been considered exempt for at least the last 20-plus years.

It may be an established idea… but is it correct? I haven’t spoken with Schatz, but I suppose the principle is that “advisory” bodies are less official than regular entities. By their very nature, advisory bodies can’t make any policy decisions. I can see the reasoning. But I’m not sure I buy it.

In reality, it’s doubtful that hordes of reporters would be clamoring for admittance to a meeting of the PFP Council. Unless, of course, you tell them they can’t get in. Which is what the Administration has just done.  

6 thoughts on “A fine distinction on the Open Meeting Law

  1. It may be an established idea… but is it correct?

    A lot customary ways of doing things contribute to our status as the least transparent state.  Could this be another example?

  2. It does not matter, nor does it justify anything, just because previous administrations have hidden some of its dealings as well as closed its meetings along these and related lines. What a lame excuse.

    This simply goes to prove, as has oft been quoted, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

    So much for Governor Shumlin being “Mr. Transparency”.

  3. Cheney argued that he didn’t need to tell the public who attended his meetings.  Isn’t the Vermont governor’s official schedule a matter of public record?  

    Has the uninvited general public (or the press) ever been allowed to attend executive branch meetings at any level of government?  

  4. The POOP Council’s role is to act as an advisor to the Governor. According to the Vermont Open Meeting Law (my emphasis):

    “Public body” means any board, council or commission of the state or one or more of its political subdivisions, any board, council or commission of any agency, authority or instrumentality of the state or one or more of its political subdivisions, or any committee of any of the foregoing boards, councils or commissions, except that “public body” does not include councils or similar groups established by the governor for the sole purpose of advising the governor with respect to policy.

    Because it isn’t a “public body”, it’s not subject to open meetings. That doesn’t mean the law’s right, of course. As I recall, the governor’s office has some carve-outs from public records requirements, too.

  5. Word is Governor Shumlin’s Cabal on Poverty (aka Pathways From Poverty Council) held a meeting, which was closed to the public, with Governor Peter Shumlin today:

    http://governor.vermont.gov/bo

    Nothing more in the way of details to report really, other than it was mentioned that apparently nothing of the nature of a state secret had been discussed.

    (so much for transparency)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *