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Vt. Bill Would Extend Meeting-Minute Deadline

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/2/2018 11:52:32 PM
Modified: 2/2/2018 11:52:43 PM

Norwich — State Reps. Tim Briglin and Jim Masland, both Democrats from Thetford, are sponsoring legislation that would extend the statutory deadline to post minutes from public meetings, which they say would ease stress on municipal employees and volunteer board members.

The bill, which would push the deadline after a meeting from five calendar days to five business days, has roots in a Norwich resident’s dispute with a town official over the timely production of minutes, Masland said in an interview this week.

“If there’s someone in a given town — I won’t mention any names — who gets terribly upset if minutes are one day late ... it turns out to be an administrative hassle even if you’re just trying to get the work done on a difficult schedule,” he said. Briglin and Masland’s Windsor-Orange 2 district comprises Norwich, Thetford, Strafford and Sharon.

Norwich Town Manager Herb Durfee confirmed that he had asked Masland and the rest of the town’s delegation for help. Meeting minutes have become “a lightning rod in town,” he said, “because one individual is paying close attention to the statutory five-calendar-day requirement.”

Resident Stuart Richards over the past few months has been circulating memos to the Norwich Selectboard and town manager noting apparent timeliness violations on the part of Planning and Zoning Director Phil Dechert, who produces the agendas and minutes for several different boards, commissions and subcommittees.

“Government depends on transparency, or should depend on transparency,” Richards said in an interview. “We see a lot of places in the world where the public’s opinion is not sought or is not particularly valued, but in Norwich, public opinion is valued. And the way it can be informed is through the public records and open meetings laws.”

Dechert acknowledged that minutes sometimes arrive late, but noted that, as a town employee, he doesn’t work weekends, which means it’s harder to meet a deadline based on calendar days. He and other town officials could produce extremely sparse records in order to meet the requirements, he said, but “we’d rather not do that. We’d rather put together a document that actually means something.”

Municipal officials and transparency advocates from the Upper Valley and elsewhere in Vermont this week were split over whether to support the measure.

Richards, for his part, said the change was unnecessary and could encourage local governments to take even longer to produce minutes.

“It may not seem like two more days may be a big deal, especially if it’s a weekend or a holiday, but it actually is,” he said. “What happens is (public officials) take a few more days and then they take a few days after that. And then you have to ask for enforcement.”

Tracy Borst, the town clerk in Thetford, which has a population of around 2,600, noted that her community relies on volunteers to keep the local government running.

“In small towns, let’s remember that our committees are filled with volunteers that may or may not be tech savvy, and they are already giving so much for the town,” Borst said in an email. “Now they have a tough deadline to follow as well.”

Borst said she didn’t often see boards and committees respect the five-day deadline, nor did she see much enforcement of the rule.

“Of course, as a town clerk especially, I see that compliance with the Open Meeting laws boosts towns’ credibility, and helps avoid criticism of elected officials, and even avoids the extra work, lawsuits and civil suits that could be created when decisions are challenged,” she said. “Compliance protects the towns’ reputation and towns’ coffers.”

Both Michael Donoghue, president of the Vermont Press Association, and Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos noted that the Legislature in recent years has discussed similar proposals to extend meeting minute deadlines. So far, the measure hasn’t passed.

Condos said his office’s view was that the deadline was a policy issue for the Legislature to decide on.

Donoghue, however, said the change would be unnecessary with the help of modern technology.

“Before computers you used to have to type them out and correct them, and it was a pain to try to get good clean typed minutes out in three to five days,” said Donoghue, who worked for more than 45 years at the Burlington Free Press and now does some freelance reporting, including for the Valley News. “But there’s no reason why you can’t turn things around (now).”

The bill, H.700, was introduced last month and referred to the House Committee on Government Operations, where it awaits further action.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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