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Editorial: The Web, Entangled; Vermont Towns Struggle With Online Posts

The law of unintended consequences now has an online version. In Vermont, several towns recently disabled their municipal websites because officials weren’t sure they could meet provisions of the state’s revised Open Meeting Law, which requires cities and towns with websites to post minutes of public meetings online within five days. The avoidance strategy — no website, no problem — was recommended by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

In the long history of problem solving, the temporary fix adopted by Fairlee, Bradford and other Vermont towns doesn’t seem particularly elegant, but who hasn’t been confounded by the computer revolution, which was intended to make life easier but which has often made it more complex? The unintelligible error message has become a staple of modern life, and sometimes the only way forward is to cut off power, restart the device, and hope for the best.

Vermont may have to do something similar with the revised Open Meeting Law, since it appears to have been flawed from the start. Senate Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Jeannette White, D-Windham, one of the bill’s authors, told the Burlington Free Press that there were mistakes in the law’s language and that it would be revisited next year. Gov. Peter Shumlin said he had “serious concern’’ about aspects of the bill even as he signed it into law. In Fairlee, Selectboard Chairwoman Mary Daly said local officials hadn’t had much chance to examine the bill. None of that inspires confidence in the legislative process.

But this is 2014, and websites are a necessity. While some towns are struggling with the mandate, others are taking it in stride. Windsor Town Manager Tom Marsh told staff writer Maggie Cassidy that the town could meet the requirement, because a new web platform makes it easier for non-geeks to post items. Previously, they had to be sent to a webmaster, and posting was, in Marsh’s words, “difficult, time-consuming and expensive.” Both the state and the League of Cities and Towns could help get the word out about easier-to-use websites, and perhaps offer technical assistance.

When legislators take another look at the law, minor tweaks could help. Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton observed that having five business days rather than five calendar days to post minutes would help, and the law might give even more time to minor town bodies that rely on volunteers to comply.

In any case, no one is going to dragged off to jail for violating the statute — towns are reportedly exempt from prosecution by the state Attorney General’s office for a year. It’s not clear why communities wouldn’t do better by trying to muddle through now, and fixing glitches as they go.

Websites are an essential platform for sharing public information, and also are a way for people outside a town to learn about a community. They can enhance a municipality’s image, or, in the marketing-speak of today, its brand.

Pulling the plug on a website isn’t a good option, unless a town can quickly reboot. We are all moving into the future, even if kicking and screaming and control-alt-deleting as we go.