Some Town Boards Lax With Agendas

June 16, 2014

in Barnard,News,Plymouth,Pomfret

(This story was first published in the June 5, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)

By Katy Savage, Standard Staff

If you want to know what the Barnard Selectboard will talk about at upcoming meetings, you probably won’t find out until after the fact.

The three-person selectboard doesn’t make agendas, according to Selectboard chair Tom Morse.

In a typical meeting, the board goes over old business, then new business and then Morse goes over whatever documents he signed in the middle of the week. Sometimes the fellow Selectboard members don’t even know what’s going to be discussed, he said.

“You’ve got three selectmen who are up here that are really Vermonty,” Morse said. “I don’t think we’ve got anything extra to say any of the time.”

In total, about 12 residents attend the board meetings per year.

“Hardly anybody ever comes,” Morse said. “We’d like to think that means we’re doing a good job.”

The state’s newly adopted open meeting law, which was signed May 23, will require selectboards to post agendas on their websites — if they have one — and on or near the municipal office at least 48 hours in advance.

A person who knowingly or intentionally violates the law and excludes anybody from a meeting could be fined $500, according to the act.

However, Act 143 says that a public body that violates the requirement to post minutes to the website “shall not be subject to prosecution for such violation” for any meeting that occurs before July 1, 2015.

Before the act, agendas simply had to be made available to the media or to a concerned person who requested it prior to the meeting. The board wasn’t required to post agendas prior to that.

Steven Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns says the new law should encourage more public participation in town government. It will also help the board stay on track.

It will also help “better construct the meeting and mold the meeting so you have a process and people can follow what you’re actually going to try to accomplish that evening,” he said.

In contrast to Barnard, the nearby Pomfret Selectboard agendas are posted on the town website the Monday before the Wednesday meeting. A copy of the agenda is also distributed at the beginning of meetings and a link to the agenda is posted to the town listerv.

“I feel very strongly that it better informs the public as to what we’re doing — what information we have before we make our decisions,” said selectboard member Michael Reese, who prepares the agendas.

The agendas are available with an attached document that show the warrants the selectboard will sign at the meeting, price quotes it has for anything it plans to purchase and any additional item that will be discussed.

The extra detail allows people to follow what is going on in the town without going to meetings, Reese said. About 20 people attend Pomfret Selectboard meetings, on average.

“Sharing information can only help us move toward greater trust and confidence that all this formation is out there,” Reese said.

Reading agendas are available immediately before the meeting, Bridgewater agendas aren’t posted anywhere but are available in advance, upon request. Plymouth Selectboard agendas are posted on the website.

In March, the Vermont Standard sent requests to all towns in its coverage area requesting that towns provide selectboard agendas prior to the meetings. All responded except Barnard and Reading.

The Barnard Selectboard meets twice a month. Whenever there is something that the selectboard needs public input on, Morse says he makes sure the public is informed.

“I don’t mean to circumvent any of the open meeting law,” he said.

Barnard does not have a town website. Morse said he will start making agendas when needed. He said most of the businesses the board talks about is “boring.”

“In Barnard, most of our business is, in fact, kind of non-controversial and routine and that’s probably why we don’t often have guests come,” Morse said. “It’s just plain boring most of the time.’


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