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THE RIGHT TO KNOW

September 20, 2012

Secretary of State Jim Condos brought his Got Transparency Tour to the Derby Elementary School Wednesday. Photo by Christopher Roy

DERBY LINE – Secretary of State Jim Condos brought his rolling Got Transparency Tour to the Derby Elementary School Wednesday evening.
Deputy Sectary of State Brian Leven joined Condos in a presentation aimed at members of governing bodies, however some local politicians and other officials and citizens also attended.
The Got Transparency Tour is the result of discussions that took place in the legislature in 2011 and 2012 as well as the campaigns that took place prior to that.
The Open Meeting Law came about in the mid- to late-1970s to ensure the public has access to what the government is doing. The public’s right to know comes from the Vermont Constitution. The open meeting law and the public records law are some of the most important the state has, because it allows citizens to have direct access to information.
“A full understanding of these laws makes everyone a better citizen,” said Condos. “In government, the ultimate boss is the public.”
The Vermont Constitution, Chapter I Article VI, clearly states that all power is derived from the people, therefore all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them. It is in the public's interest to enable any person to review and criticize government decisions, even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment.
“You can’t hide behind executive session because it’s going to embarrass you or it’s inconvenient for the public to know what’s going on,” said Condos. “The public has a right to know."
The law doesn’t apply to the judicial branch of the government. It also doesn’t apply to the Public Service Board, any public body in connection with a quasi-judicial proceeding, or site inspections for the purpose of assessing damage or making tax assessments or abatements. It also doesn’t apply to clerical work or work assignments of staff or other personnel. It also doesn’t apply to routine day-to-day administrative matters that do not require action by the public body.
There are three types of meetings: regular, special and emergency. Agendas should be written in a way that the public understands them. Boards also have to make agendas available prior to the start of the meeting.
Governing bodies have to give any member of the public an opportunity to speak at meetings. In addition, school boards must give a reasonable opportunity to anyone who lives in the district to appear and express views on any matter considered. Boards may limit how much time an individual may speak, but it may not limit how many people may speak.
“The public didn’t ask you, when you ran for election, if your meeting was going last for one or five hours,” said Condos. “They expect you do the work you’re suppose to do and you have to give them an opportunity to speak. You can set reasonable rules, by the chair, on how that meeting will be conducted.”
School boards, if requested, have to give their reasons in writing as to why they took certain actions.
There are certain rules boards must follow for public hearings that included going into the hearing and out of the hearing. The motion resulting from the hearing takes place during the regular meeting, not the hearing. Meeting minutes should a give true and clear indication of the business of the meeting. Minutes, even if in draft form, should be available five days after the meeting and kept indefinitely.
The media is the public, it represents the public and is in essence the public’s watchdog, Condos said. Members of the media and public have a right to attend meetings, tape the meetings and take video of the meetings as long as it’s done in a manner that doesn’t interrupt the meeting. The public and the media have a right to know why boards are going into executive session.
There are nine reasons why governing bodies may enter executive sessions, but with the exception of real-estate issues, decisions must be made in open session. Decisions may not be made via e-mail. Grievance hearings may be held in the public if the person in question makes the request. Members of governing bodies may meet informally, such as for coffee, as long as they don’t discuss formal business.
Meetings held out of compliance might be considered illegal and courts might consider the results voidable and in some cases the boards might have to meet again for a "do over."
A person who is a member of a public body who knowingly and intentionally violates the provision of the law or knowingly and intentionally participates in the wrongful exclusion of any person from any meeting could be fined up to $500.
Condos also spoke about public records. A public record is any written or recorded information produced or acquired in the course of public agency business. Members of the public may inspect and copy records from state agencies between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on any day but Saturday, Sunday or legal holidays and customary business hours for public agencies of municipalities and other political subdivisions.
Officials may not ask the person why he or she wants the records. Personal documents relating to an individual, medical information, Society Security numbers, investigations, trade secrets and tax records are exempt from the law. The records in active use or in storage so they are not available the custodian of the records must certify they are not available. The custodian, if he or she feels the records are exempt, must explain that in writing.

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