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Burlington Councilors Consider Whether An Executive Session Violated State Open Meeting Law

The Black Lives Matter flag flies in front of Burlington City Hall
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington City Hall (file)

Burlington City Councilors spent a substantial portion of their meeting Monday evening discussing how they should respond to a complaint claiming the city council violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.
Last Tuesday the city council entered executive session with three organizers of a weeks-long protest and encampment outside police headquarters in the city. At the time Ward 5 Democrat Chip Mason, an attorney, opposed the move.  “I don’t feel it’s prudent, I don’t even think we have a legitimate basis, to go into executive session to hear from organizers as to a potential position that’s different  than the public position they’ve taken.”

The council voted 8-4 to allow the protest organizers to join the executive session and then voted 9-3 to enter executive session.  Two days later, a weekly newspaper in Burlington filed a complaint claiming the council had violated the state Open Meeting Law. The complaint from Seven Days states: “Nothing presented publicly suggested that the protesters possessed any privileged information regarding the conduct of the three police officers they have been demonstrating against.”  The newspaper wants the names of the people, their affiliations and any notes or minutes of the executive session be released to the public.

During Monday’s regular City Council session, Ward 3 Progressive Brian Pine began the discussion on their response by suggesting the panel go into executive session.  “To consider the legal advice concerning the complaint that we received from Seven Days about a potential Open Meeting Law violation that may have occurred at our last meeting.”

But several councilors including Mason opposed the idea.  “This is a matter from my perspective that the public has great interest.”

Councilor Pine decided to withdraw his motion to go into executive session, but when that procedurally could not occur a vote was taken and passed to table it. The council then publicly continued its discussion as to whether it had violated the open meeting law.

Mason offered a resolution to find the council had violated the state regulation.

East District progressive Jack Hanson did not believe the law was violated and offered a resolution.  “I would move that we waive attorney-client privilege and hear the opinion of the city attorney in public session on this item.”

His request passed and City Attorney Eileen Blackwood offered her analysis.  “The law itself says that it is within the discretion of the public body to invite into its executive session persons whose information is needed. From my legal perspective in defending the city and looking at the city I would say that it would be important for us to defend that there is no violation because City Council should have the right to decide does it want to invite certain people in because they think that group has information.  I don’t think it then translates to it’s a violation if it turns out that you decided once they were there that you didn’t need that information.”

Central District Progressive Perri Freeman says the council must be accountable to its constituents and be held to a high standard.  “We make policy and we make laws and those are pretty incredible powers that we possess as a body. I don’t believe that bodies like ours should deliberate in secret and I think we really need to be as transparent as possible.”

The motion finding that the council “going into executive session and inviting individuals in was in violation of open meeting law” passed on a 9 to 3 vote. The city attorney must now report on suggestions for a “cure” to the Seven Days complaint by Monday, September 21st.

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