On September 8th the Burlington City Council invited three organizers of a weeks-long protest into their executive session. Two days later, a weekly Burlington newspaper called Seven Days filed a complaint claiming the council had violated the state Open Meeting Law. During its September 14th meeting the council determined the complaint was valid and asked the city attorney to provide recommendations for a “cure” to the complaint at this week’s meeting.
Monday night City Attorney Eileen Blackwood offered several options for the council to prevent future violations. Among the recommendations are releasing the names of the individuals who attended the meeting. Ward 5 Democrat Chip Mason provided what he knew about the individuals. “We have provided no information in response to #2 relating to the names, titles and affiliations of the individuals. So I was going to maybe put that out for the public. My recollection was you know Zanevia, Ashley Laporte and Zee. I’m sure others can provide maybe Zanevia’s last name and Zee’s full name. In terms of affiliation you know I think they made it abundantly clear going in while they are part of Black Presence they did not purport to be there in any official role.”
Council President Max Tracy: “Thank you Councilor Mason. I have Councilor Hightower.”
Ward 1 Progressive Zoraya Hightower: “Councilor Mason, It’s Black Perspective.”
Mason: “Thank you.”
Hightower: “And I would definitely just only be comfortable with saying that they were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community members which is how they affiliated themselves.”
The city attorney advised that councilors release any notes or minutes or publicly describe what was shared. South District Democrat Joan Shannon appeared to be the only councilor who had taken notes during the meeting. “I reviewed those notes and then I lost those notes! So I will try to find them but I don’t want to agree to a statement that says there were no notes because I definitely did have them. And it is amazing to me that of all things to disappear from my computer that that would be it. But that is what happened.”
The attorney’s recommendations include strengthening transparency by better explaining the basis for the executive session and adopting specific measures to prevent future violations. Shannon offered an amendment that would require plans for an executive session, called the finding, be published on BoardDocs, their on-line public scheduling and agenda platform, before the meeting. “What happened in this case was I had no idea that anyone would propose to bring members of the public into our executive session. I have never seen that happen before. I stated my objection strongly. I had no chance to give it any consideration in advance and if that had actually been on the agenda I would have been a much better opportunity to prepare what I was going to say either in favor or against that motion. So that is what I would recommend in the future is that we always have the finding and who’s invited into the executive session published in BoardDocs.”
Councilor Mason supported the amendment. “We do it for every other motion. I don’t see why this is different. I agree that we sort of stumble through it and this would go a long way to sort of institutionalizing what we should be doing.”
Shannon’s amendment passed unanimously.
The Council then unanimously approved the motion to correct its violation of the Open Meeting Law by taking the actions recommended by the city attorney as amended.