Burlington City Council Holds Information Session on Open Meeting Law
In September the Burlington City Council invited protesters who had camped out, calling for police reforms, to an executive session. Two days later, the weekly newspaper Seven Days filed a formal complaint claiming the council had violated the state’s Open Meeting law. The council subsequently agreed and part of the recommended cure for the violation included educating councilors about the law. During its most recent meeting the council heard from experts about open meeting requirements.
Vermont Press Association Executive Director Mike Donoghue and ACLU Vermont Senior Staff Attorney Lia Ernst serve on the New England First Amendment Coalition. The two reviewed the main points that councilors must be aware of regarding the state Open Meeting Law. Ernst reminded the council that the Open Meeting Law makes public agencies accountable to the public pursuant to the state Constitution. “What we always encourage whether it’s a question under the Open Meeting Law or the Public Records Act is in case of doubt always err on the side of more openness, more accountability, more transparency. These two laws are absolutely critical to the functioning of our democracy and we applaud the council’s interest in learning this information and hopefully applying it going forward.”
The definitions of meetings and quorums were clarified particularly in relation to electronic communications. The work session was also open to any city board and commission members.
Burlington School Board Commissioner Mike Fisher asked Donoghue for clarification on how executive session announcements should be made. “How detailed do we need to be? Should we be saying something like we are going into executive session to talk about a potential disciplinary matter against the principal of Hunt Middle School? Just an example!”
Donoghue: “I don’t believe you technically have to identify who the subject of the discipline is but you certainly do have to say that that board is contemplating discipline of a public official. And you can’t just say we’re going into executive session for personnel. That’s not a valid reason. You’ve got to be more specific.”
The city council agenda includes regular Climate Emergency reports. During the meeting Burlington Electric Department General Manager Darren Springer presented a proposal that he says would be a significant step in meeting the city’s 2030 Net Zero energy goal. “If a building is coming forward and does wish to connect to fossil fuel infrastructure there would be a building carbon fee. So what we would do is look at the building energy model for the first ten years of the building’s operation and create an upfront fee that would cover the fossil fuel use that’s expected in that building. And that would be paid at the time of permit. The second part would be to have new buildings that are connecting to fossil fuel infrastructure accommodate future renewable or efficient technologies. It’s much cheaper to have that sized correctly upfront than to pay for a retrofit. And this would help insure that as new buildings are constructed that they’re compatible with our future Net Zero Energy goals.”
The city council also passed a resolution that lifts restrictions on operating hours for bars and restaurants but maintains restrictions on crowd sizes.