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Open Meeting Law
1 V.S.A. §§ 310-314
Vermont’s Open Meeting Law provides that “[a]ll meetings of a public body are declared to be open to the public at all times, except as provided in section 313 of this title [on executive sessions].” 1 V.S.A. § 312(a). 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 generally applies whenever a majority of the members of a municipal board, council, commission, committee, or subcommittee have a conversation or make a decision about municipal business.
The Open Meeting Law requires:
The law applies to every “public body” of a municipality and the requirements are triggered whenever a “quorum” of a public body is “meeting.” A public body is any board, council, commission, committee, or subcommittee of a municipality. 1 V.S.A. § 310(3). The law does not apply to community justice boards or community justice centers. 24 V.S.A. § 1964(b). A meeting is a gathering of a quorum of the members of a public body for the purpose of discussing the business of the body or for the purpose of taking any action. 1 V.S.A. § 310(2).
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. 1 V.S.A. § 310(2).
An agenda must be created and posted in advance of every regular or special meeting. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d). At least 48 hours in advance of a regular meeting, and at least 24 hours in advance of a special meeting, an agenda must be posted in or near the municipal office and in at least two other designated public places in the municipality. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d). In addition, the public body must post the agendas of regular and special meetings to an official website, if one exists that is maintained or has been designated as the official website. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d). An item may only be added or removed from a meeting agenda as the first order of business at the meeting. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d)(3)(A). Other adjustments to an agenda may be made at any time during the meeting. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d)(3)(B).
Meetings must be properly noticed and announced:
Municipal public bodies shall post notices of special meetings in or near the municipal clerk’s office and in at least two other designated public places in the municipality, at least 24 hours before the meeting. In addition, notice shall be given, either orally or in writing, to each member of the public body at least 24 hours before the meeting, except that a member may waive notice of a special meeting. 1 V.S.A. § 312(c)(2).
Meeting Minutes must be taken at every public meeting and must include at least the members present, active participants, motions made, and votes taken. 1 V.S.A. § 312(b)(1). Five days after the meeting minutes must be available for inspection and must be posted to a website, if one exists, that is maintained or has been designated as the official website. 1 V.S.A. § 312(b)(2). If it is not possible to provide the final approved minutes in five days, then a draft that is marked with words such as “subject to approval” should be posted and made available. Minutes need not be taken in executive session, but if they are, they are not subject to a public records request. 1 V.S.A. § 313(a).
Participation and voting at meetings by electronic means. One or more of the members of a public body may attend and participate in a regular, special, or emergency meeting by electronic or other means without being physically present at a designated meeting location as long as each member who attends electronically identifies himself or herself when the meeting is convened; and is able to hear the conduct of the meeting and be heard throughout the meeting. 1 V.S.A. §§ 312(a)(2)(A) and (C). If one or more members attend a meeting by electronic or other means, any vote of the public body shall be taken by roll call. 1 V.S.A. § 312(a)(2)(B).
If a quorum or more of the members of a public body attend a meeting without being physically present, the following additional requirements shall be met: (i) At least 24 hours prior to the meeting, or as soon as practicable prior to an emergency meeting, the public body shall publicly announce the meeting, shall post notice of the meeting in or near the municipal clerk's office and in at least two other designated public places in the municipality; and (ii) The public announcement and posted notice of the meeting shall designate at least one physical location where a member of the public can attend and participate in the meeting. At least one member of the public body, or at least one staff or designee of the public body, shall be physically present at each designated meeting location. 1 V.S.A. § 312(a)(2)(D).
Exceptions to the Open Meeting Law. The requirements of that law are not imposed on municipal bodies in the following situations:
Deliberative session occurs only in “a case in which the legal rights of one or more persons who are granted party status are adjudicated, which is conducted in such a way that all parties have opportunity to present evidence and to cross-examine witnesses presented by other parties, which results in a written decision, and the result of which is appealable by a party to a higher authority.” 1 V.S.A. § 310(5). A written decision issued by a public body in connection with a quasi-judicial proceeding “need not be adopted at an open meeting if the decision will be a public record.” 1 V.S.A. § 312(f).
Executive session is a closed portion of a public meeting and is allowed only in certain limited situations including the following:
B. labor relations agreements with employees;
C. arbitration or mediation;
D. grievances, other than tax grievances;
E. pending or probable civil litigation or a prosecution, to which the public body is or may be a party; or
F. confidential attorney-client communications made for the purpose of providing professional legal services to the body. 1 V.S.A. § 313(a)(1)
A motion to go into executive session must be made during the open portion of a meeting and must indicate the nature of the business to be discussed. 1 V.S.A. § 313(a). The motion must get the vote of a majority of the members present and must be recorded in the minutes of the meeting. 1 V.S.A. § 313(a). To enter into executive session for the reasons noted in 1 V.S.A. § 313(a)(1) (listed in #7A-F above), there must be a specific finding that premature general public knowledge would place the public body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage. 1 V.S.A. § 313(a)(1). It is important that the minutes show that there was a careful analysis of the need to enter into executive session before the motion was made.
Attendance in executive session is limited to members of the public body, and, in their discretion, its staff, clerical assistants, legal counsel, and persons who are subject of the discussion or whose information is needed. 1 V.S.A. § 313(b). A motion to go into executive session should state whether individuals other than the members of the public body will attend the session.
No formal or binding action may be taken in executive session except for actions relating to the securing of real estate options. 1 V.S.A. § 313(a).
Penalty. A person who knowingly and intentionally violates the Open Meeting Law may be guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine up to $500. 1 V.S.A. § 314(a). Either the Attorney General or any person aggrieved by the alleged violation may bring suit against the public body in Superior Court. Such a suit must be brought within one year of the alleged violation. 1 V.S.A. § 314(a). Prior to instituting such action, the Attorney General or person aggrieved must provide the public body with written notice of the alleged violation. Upon receipt of an allegation of violation, contact the town attorney or the Municipal Assistance Center immediately.