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Council Advised on Open Meeting law

July 8, 2012

NEWPORT CITY – Members of governing bodies have to be careful what they discuss outside a warned meeting or at an informal gathering. Last week, city attorney Bill Davies outlined to council members what Vermont law allows and doesn’t allow regarding open meeting laws. 
Governing bodies may not hear or discuss official business at any unwarned meeting or informal gathering if the members present equal a quorum. The exception of the rule is site inspections for assessing damage or making tax assessments or abatements, or clerical or work assignments of staff or other personnel. Routine day-to-day administrative manners that don’t require action by the public body may be conducted outside a warned meeting, providing no money is appropriated.
Perception is extremely important, Davies said. “If a quorum of you happens to attend a parade, it’s not reasonable to anticipate there will be any city business conducted,” said Davies. “That’s just basically common sense.” On the other hand, if a quorum of council members attend a meeting such as the ones conducted by the Newport City Fire Department, then it is reasonable to assume that some city business will come up.
Any member of a governing body who violates Vermont’s open meeting law could face a fine up to $500. The way around the problem, said Davies, is for the council to put out a notice that the majority of the membership might attend a particular meeting. 
Council members may meet for coffee as long as they don’t discuss city business if a quorum is present. If a member of the public approaches council members about an issue during that gathering, the council has to inform the person they can’t hear what he or she has to say and to come to a city council meeting.
That same rule stands if someone brings up a question regarding city business at an event such as a ribbon cutting.
“Common sense needs to prevail,” said Davies. “There are going to be times a quorum of the council accidentally ends up at the same place, maybe at a grocery store.”
Davies told council members it is his job to keep them out of court. He also said in a democracy, openness creates and invites trust; a lack of openness creates paranoia and distrust.

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