In response to questions posed by our members about the Open Meeting Law in light of COVID-19 (commonly known as coronavirus), the Municipal Assistance Center has assembled the following information related to public meetings and how public bodies can continue to meet and take action through, for example, electronic meetings. The information is excerpted from our Open Meeting Law FAQ. For the full document, please visit www.vlct.org/municipal-assistance/municipal-topics/vermonts-open-meeting-law.
For additional information about municipal emergency planning assistance and coordination, please visit our Coronavirus Resources and Recommendations webpage, www.vlct.org/coronavirus.
EMERGENCY MEETINGS OF PUBLIC BODIES
Can we hold an emergency meeting?
An emergency meeting may be held only when necessary to respond to an unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention by the public body.
What are the notice and minutes requirements for an emergency meeting?
There is no requirement for an agenda for an emergency meeting. There is no specific requirement for announcing and posting notice for emergency meetings, although some public notice must be given as soon as possible before any such meeting. Minutes must be taken at every public meeting, including an emergency meeting.
If a member is unable to attend a meeting, can that person vote by email or proxy?
No. The law does not allow for voting by email or by proxy (i.e., having another person vote on behalf of the member). However, it does allow a member to attend a meeting by electronic means (e.g., conference call or Skype), and to vote at that meeting, so long as the other requirements of the Open Meeting Law are met.
Can a member of a public body attend a meeting by conference call or Skype?
Yes, as long as that member identifies himself or herself when the meeting is convened, and he or she is able to hear and be heard throughout the meeting. Whenever one or more members attend electronically, voting must be done by roll call for any vote that is not unanimous.
What if a majority of members of a public body are not able to be physically present? Can they still have a meeting?
Yes. A quorum or more members of a public body may participate in a meeting electronically when the agenda that has been posted for such meeting designates at least one physical location where a member of the public can attend and participate in the meeting. At least one member of the body or at least one staff person or other designee must be present at that physical location. Each member who attends electronically must identify himself or herself when the meeting is convened and must be able to hear and be heard throughout the meeting. Any voting that occurs at the meeting that is not unanimous must be done by roll call.
SIGNING PAYROLL WITH LESS THAN A QUORUM OF THE LEGISLATIVE BODY
How do payroll and other town bills get processed if the selectboard is not meeting?
Individual members may not merely show up at the town office and sign payment orders at their convenience. Doing so would be a violation of the Open Meeting Law, which requires that whenever a majority of the members take an action or make a decision (e.g., sign an order approving payment), they must do so within the context of a duly warned open meeting.
There are two exceptions to the above general rule. First, the selectboard can vote at a duly warned selectboard meeting to approve certain payments in advance so that there is no need for members to actually sign orders. Such a vote must identify the person(s) to whom payment is to be made and the purpose(s) for that payment. The treasurer may then use a certified copy of the minutes of the meeting as full authority to make the approved payment.
The second exception allows the selectboard to authorize one or more members to review and approve orders on behalf of the entire board. A vote to give such authorization must take place at a duly warned selectboard meeting and must be reflected in the meeting minutes. A motion to give such authorization might be phrased as, “I move that we appoint [insert name(s) of selectboard member(s)] to approve and sign orders for [insert types of claims that the person has authorization to approve such as “payroll,” “operating expenses,” etc.] for [insert period of time].” Any orders that are approved under this authority must state definitely the purpose for which they are drawn. The full selectboard must later be provided with a record of all the orders approved.
In the event that there are so many vacancies on the selectboard that a quorum cannot be achieved, the remaining selectperson(s) have the authority to draw orders for payment of continuing obligations and necessary expenses until the vacancies are filled.