Burlington’s Open Meeting Problem

‘Sounds like it’s time for Sec. of State Jim Condos to bring his celebrated
Transparency Tour to the big city of Burlington.

I used to think Franklin County was the poster child for dodgy open-meeting practices, but this week, Miro Weinberger and company seem to be giving FC a run for its money.

On GMD, we’ve long questioned the wisdom of locating F-35 fighter planes in the densely populated area that is Burlington Airport. We’ve read the well-articulated concerns of neighbors and the glaringly deficient conclusions of officialdom.

We know that Burlington probably wouldn’t even have been considered for the siting if it were not for the concentrated efforts of Senator Leahy, the Chittenden County political elite and the development community, which seems to play a central role in local decision making.

Even assuming the best of intentions on the part of all of these interested parties, legitimate public concerns always seem to get short-shrift.

When such a controversial topic is discussed before City Councilors, one would think there would be special care taken to ensure that the rules governing open meetings are scrupulously observed, even to the point of over-compensation.

Even though the notice posted announcing the meeting stated that “no Council business will be discussed,” a quorum of Councilors was present (the minimum number of Councilors necessary to conduct Council business), and that of and by itself triggers the ‘open meeting’ requirement and all the rules associated with an open meeting.

To say that no Council business would be discussed is a bit disingenuous in any case, as a presentation by the Guard would undoubtedly involve some mention of the F-35 siting and questions and answers of interest to the public who are engaged on either side of the issue.

It is my understanding that, to remain within the confines of Open Meeting Law, either the public must be free to attend, or the number of Councilors in attendance must be below the number required to conduct a legal vote. If a quorum must be in attendance, the Council has no choice but to gavel a meeting before the public.

After that, if it can be justified under the limitations governing open meetings, the Council may go into Executive Session, excluding the public from the conversation. But there are strict rules governing the circumstances under which Executive Session may be convened. I believe the only allowable reasons are to discuss a city employee or legal matters which my be adversely affected by premature disclosure. They should be prepared to summarily explain why Executive Session is justified, and they must come out of Executive Session if a vote is to be taken.

In any case, maintaining public trust should be paramount in any question of excluding citizens from a Council gathering.

While the Secretary of States office is relatively powerless in enforcing open meeting rules, Jim Condos has recognized that Vermont has a problem in that area, and initiated his annual “Transparency Tour” not long after he took office.

Since receiving a polite reminder of the obligation to follow the open meeting rules a couple of years ago, I am happy to say that the City of St. Albans appears to have become much more conscientious. Apparently, the same cannot necessarily be said of Burlington.

As I have discovered, there is little legal recourse for the aggrieved in the event of an open meeting violation, so it is not surprising to learn that

“None of the community members…are currently pursuing any action.”

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

2 thoughts on “Burlington’s Open Meeting Problem

  1. Appreciate your seemingly lonely crusade. Don’t consider it small at all — listening to the apologists for the self-serving regular violaters — I consider disturbing. Feel like democracy is becoming a quaint custom which is considered passe…oh, wait…

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