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Revised Law Leads Some Vt. Towns to Shut Down Websites

Fairlee — Town officials have temporarily deactivated the websites for at least two Upper Valley towns, as they grapple with the changes to Vermont’s open meeting law.

Although most other town websites on the Vermont half of the Upper Valley remained active Monday evening, several town clerks and administrators said that the law’s new requirements of posting meeting minutes online within five calendar days will result in inconvenient headaches, if not insurmountable challenges.

“It’s going to be an additional burden ...,” said Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton. “We’ve got a pretty good group of people who do their best to comply with statutes even if it’s inconvenient, and this one is.”

Meanwhile, officials in Fairlee and Bradford have decided to forgo maintaining a website — at least temporarily — rather than attempting to comply with the law.

Previously, draft minutes had to be available to the public “for inspection” five days after a meeting, but did not have to be uploaded online.

Several officials interviewed on Monday said they had only been posting online minutes for their major town boards, such as selectboards, but not for smaller bodies, such as recreation boards.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns has advised municipalities who cannot prepare their websites to post agendas and minutes within the law’s guidelines to “deactivate the website to avoid violating this requirement,” according to its monthly newsletter.

The law went into effect July 1. The Burlington Free Press reported that towns are exempt from prosecution by the state Attorney General’s Office for a year, but residents have the right to call a town’s adherence into question at any time.

In Fairlee, officials decided to take down the site last week “until we can regroup and see what we can do” about meeting the new requirements, said Town Administrator Laurent Veilleux.

Visitors to the website, www.fairleevt.org, are greeted by a page that says the site is “temporarily down due to new requirements from the State of Vermont regarding changes to the Open Meeting Law.”

The same wording is posted at the page for Bradford, www.bradford-vt.us.

The intent of the changes was to make government more transparent, but Veilleux said in some cases, “it’s the actual opposite.”

“Obviously for smaller towns where they’re working less hours or less days, that definitely poses more of an inconvenience, as well as if they don’t have the personnel to maintain the website,” he said.

The town of Montgomery, Vt., has also put up a similar page notifying visitors of the website’s deactivation “due to new mandates passed by the Vermont legislature.” Several other towns, ranging from West Fairlee to Cabot, have also said they may have to consider taking down their sites.

“I hope (the website is maintained),” said West Fairlee’s Rhonda Cook, who manages the site as a volunteer. “I’d hate to lose our website. I use it every single day for myself.”

Cook, who is also the town clerk and town treasurer, said she has alerted her town’s municipal bodies of the new rule and is hopeful that the volunteer boards will be able to comply. But if minutes are sent to her on weekends, she often won’t be available to post them, she said, and the website may have to come down.

“They all want to comply but they’re volunteers, too,” she said of the town’s various boards. “So they have good intentions and we’ll see how they do.”

Not everybody was worried about the changes. In Norwich, Fulton said the changes would be “significant” but not “substantial,” saying he would have preferred that the law required minutes be posted online within five business days instead of five calendar days.

In Randolph, Town Manager Mel Adams said he felt the changes were relatively small, forcing the town to be “a little bit more observant” and taking some more staff time but generally being manageable.

“It’s going to take a little more time but we’re confident we can manage it with the system that we have,” Adams said.

In Windsor, Selectboard meeting minutes have been posted online within five days and other board meeting minutes “usually within a couple weeks of the meeting,” said Town Manager Tom Marsh.

Marsh said staff are “formalizing” the meeting minute process, which has been helped by an easy-to-use web platform for updating the town website.

“With this format, complying to the new posting requirement takes very little time, training or skill,” Marsh said in an email. “With our prior platform we had to email a document to a webmaster and have that person post. That was difficult, time consuming and expensive.”

Royalton Town Clerk Karmen Bascom said she was “fine with the requirements” — “I don’t see us taking down the website because of it” — while Weathersfield Town Clerk Flo-Ann Dango said she wasn’t happy about the new rules but is hopeful the legislature will revisit the law next year.

Thetford meeting minutes show the Selectboard recently discussed the issue with Town Clerk Tracy Borst, vowing to work over the next year “to improve their postings of agendas and meetings minutes.”

Veilleux and Selectboard Chairwoman Mary Daly said the hope is to revive Fairlee’s website, but the town wants to have its ducks in a row first. The Selectboard was planning to discuss the issue at its meeting Monday night and could make a decision about how to handle the additional workload at its next meeting in two weeks or whether “the burden is too great to maintain (the website),” Veilleux said.

He said it would have been helpful if the Legislature had waited until the next session to demand the changes.

“It would have given the towns a little more time to prepare instead of doing this mid-year, where budgets have already been set. Where, speaking in general terms, are the towns going to hire a full-time webmaster … or increase someone else’s hours?”

Daly, who is also chairwoman of the Orange County Republican Committee, said it was concerning that “we hardly get a chance to look at it (before) there were rumors that several people who legislated it thought it was overkill.”

Gov. Peter Shumlin said he had “serious concern” about aspects of the bill, even as he signed it into law, and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Jeanette White, D-Windham, one of the bill’s authors, acknowledged there were mistakes in the language and that it would be revisited next year, according to the Free Press.

Daly also noted that she and the board needed time to digest the language and review changes to make sure they understand subtle changes to rules about special meetings and executive sessions.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.