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Jim Kenyon: Hire Education for Strafford Selectboard

Vermont’s right-to-know laws are intended to, among other things, remind local selectboards about the importance of conducting town business in public view. “Living in Vermont,” Secretary of State Jim Condos writes on his office’s website, “we expect openness in government.”

The laws — and the rhetoric accompanying them — make Vermont seem like a bastion of democracy. Sort of like the fluff surrounding Town Meeting Day.

But the reality is that laws governing public meetings and access to public records in Vermont do little to promote openness in government. For example, the secretary of state’s website lists more than a dozen scenarios under which Vermont law allows for local governing boards to meet privately in so-called executive sessions.

A frequently used reason — excuse, actually — that boards give for meeting behind closed doors is to discuss the hiring of a new employee, such as a police chief or school superintendent.

Nothing in state law requires boards to meet privately to sift through resumes and discuss job applicants — it permits them to if they prefer. Given a choice, boards almost always lock out the public.

Public officials who don’t believe in the spirit of right-to-know laws are quick to claim that if the hiring process was done in the open, some highly qualified candidates wouldn’t apply. These candidates want to keep their interest in the job a secret from their current employer for as long as possible. They don’t want their bosses to know that they’re job hunting.

Public officials also sometimes argue that job searches need to be conducted in private so they can have more free-wheeling discussions about candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

I don’t believe any of it.

Executive sessions are just more convenient, less messy and avoid accountability.

Take a recent case involving the Strafford Selectboard.

This summer, the board set about filling a vacancy on the town’s four-man highway crew. Five people applied for the position. Jon MacKinnon, the town’s road foreman, was charged with making an initial review of the applications.

On June 25, the five-member Selectboard held an executive session to discuss the position. I have no idea what the board members talked about, but I doubt it was anything earth-shattering that needed to be shielded from the public’s ears. The executive session lasted all of 12 minutes.

By mid-July, MacKinnon had settled on Jay Thorp, a Strafford resident who had more than 14 years of experience working on the highway crews in Norwich and Thetford, as his top choice. On July 18, Thorp was asked to a meeting with Selectmen Rod Maclay, the board’s chairman, and Brent Cadwell, who operates a heavy-equipment business and is a board liaison on highway matters. MacKinnon also attended the meeting.

There’s no public record of the meeting, which points to another weakness in Vermont’s right-to-know laws. As long as a majority of board members didn’t attend the meeting, the law treats it as though it didn’t happen.

The meeting turned out be more than just a chat about road graders and dump trucks. It has since come to light that during the meeting, Thorp was officially offered a job. Thorp gave his two-week notice in Thetford, where he’d been working on the town’s highway crew for a short time. Ding letters were sent out to the other candidates.

“The three of us felt we had the authority to hire,” Maclay told me.

But there was a problem: The full Strafford Selectboard hadn’t voted on the hiring.

At its July 23 meeting, five days after Thorp was told by two board members that he had the job, the Selectboard voted to go into another executive session to “discuss personnel issues.” When they came out 24 minutes later, board members announced they were going to vote on Thorp’s hiring.

Maclay and Cadwell supported Thorp. They were the only ones. A vote shy of a majority, the board seemed stuck between a snowplow and a guardrail. After a brief public discussion (finally, something the board could be proud of), the members voted again. In a 3-2 vote, Thorp was officially hired for the $17.50 an hour job.

“I changed my vote,” said Brian Johnson, who was appointed in early July to fill a board vacancy. “From my understanding, (Thorp) had already given his notice (in Thetford). I figured we could be opening the town up to some kind of lawsuit.”

I called Thorp last week. He didn’t know much about what was going on with the Selectboard. I got the sense that he just wanted to focus on fixing roads rather than town politics.

Not everyone in Strafford, however, was willing to let the Selectboard off without more of an explanation. About 10 residents showed up at last Wednesday’s board meeting. Most seemed to agree that Thorp was the “most qualified” candidate and were willing to accept the board’s apology for its mishandling of the hiring process.

Three of the five members are serving their first term, which partially explains the confusion over whether hiring matters take a vote of the entire board.

I think it was an honest mistake. Still, I’m not sure all the board members have learned what they need to from it. At Wednesday’s meeting, Maclay scolded his colleagues — without naming names — for apparently talking with some residents about what was discussed during the board’s executive sessions.

“There was information that hit the street that shouldn’t have,” said Maclay. “I just hope it doesn’t happen again.”

Of course, nobody has to worry about leaks when public bodies do the public’s business in public.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com .