Valley News – Jim Kenyon: Open and close, the story of two municipal governments

Despite her recent appointment as Weathersfield’s first-ever “Open Meetings Law Enforcement Officer,” Olivia Savage has no plans to start carrying a gun and badge.

Savage could, however, put a set of flashing blue lights on her car, she jokingly told me.

Kidding aside, Weathersfield deserves kudos for making government transparency a higher priority. Too often, local officials — on both sides of the Connecticut River in the Upper Valley — ignore state laws intended to better inform the public.

Savage, who already handles clerical duties in city offices, now has the added responsibility of ensuring that elected and appointed members of Weathersfield’s board follow Vermont’s open meeting law. For starters, this means that agendas and minutes are available for public viewing in a timely manner.

She will also be on the lookout for the overuse of executive sessions — closed meetings authorized by state law to conduct certain business, including contract negotiations, without public scrutiny.

When new members join the various city councils, she will organize training sessions on the do’s and don’ts of the law. (For example, group emails used for discussion purposes are prohibited.)

The idea of ​​having a law enforcement officer for public meetings was the brainchild of City Manager Brandon Gulnick. And he purposely went with an official-sounding title.

“People need to know that we take the law seriously,” he told me. “We want to make sure that we promote transparency.”

When word spread that Gulnick created the position, it “sparked” conversations with his counterparts in other cities. They were curious about what was going on in Weathersfield, which prompted him to place a government watchdog inside the town hall.

While the city was doing a decent job of complying with state law, improvements were needed, he said.

Weathersfield resident Nancy Nutile-McMenemy, who blogs weekly about city events, had pointed out that Selectboard meeting minutes were not always posted on the city’s website within five days, as required by state law. Two councils also had to postpone meetings because the public had not been notified in advance.

In the city’s approach to the open meeting law, Gulnick “saw something was missing,” Savage said. “We are now trying to stay ahead of any potential issues.”

Vermont’s law regarding public meetings and records dates back to the post-Watergate era of the 1970s, when states felt they had to do something to regain public trust in government.

But Vermont’s efforts to expose the workings of government have proven to be little more than window dressing. The Public Records Act alone has some 200 exceptions to disclosure, Seven days, a Burlington-based weekly, published in 2020.

The law also lacks teeth. If cities lose a civil lawsuit for breaking the law, they don’t have to worry. Recovering damages, such as attorneys’ fees, is nearly impossible under the law. The maximum fine for violating the Open Meetings Act is $500, and the next time I hear that a fine has been issued, that will be news to me.

With so little at stake, it’s no wonder many city officials don’t see the law as a big deal.

It probably helps that Gulnick is a relative newcomer to local government. Before entering the field of public administration in Massachusetts, he taught English to international students.

After getting his first city manager job two years ago, Gulnick, now 32, recently signed a five-year contract at Weathersfield that currently pays $81,000 a year.

With that kind of job security, Gulnick doesn’t have to worry about city council members who might disapprove of the authority he gives Savage to ride the herd.

“Audiences want to know what’s going on in their city,” Gulnick told me. “It should be something every community has.”

Did you hear that, Norwich?

Civil servants in one of Vermont’s wealthiest communities have long flouted open government. (The Selectboard’s obsession with secrecy in its search for another city manager is the latest example.)

Norwich officials tend to view the law regarding public meetings and public records as unworthy of their valuable time.

Which could explain Norwich resident Chris Katucki’s lawsuit against the city. In a complaint filed last year in Windsor County Superior Court, Katucki alleges that the Norwich Selectboard “regularly enter executive sessions inappropriately. Since at least 2019, the Selectboard has only complied with the legal requirements” of the Vermont Open Meeting Law.

Katucki was a lawyer at a major Boston firm before Lou Gehrig’s illness ended his career. For several years he has published articles on city government on his Norwich Observer blog.

Katucki argues that Norwich officials breached the Open Meetings Act by setting up “task forces” to, among other things, help the Planning Commission and reorganize the city’s finance office.

Norwich uses these task forces to conduct city business while keeping the public “in the dark”, Katucki claims.

“If compliance is an issue, maybe the city needs fewer task forces or more dedicated resources to keep the public informed,” he wrote in his legal complaint. “Public participation should not be seen as a nuisance.”

When I asked Norwich Selectboard chairman Roger Arnold about the lawsuit, he emailed me saying the city “believes it has complied with the Open Meetings Act and we are awaiting looking forward to the court’s decision.”

No one knows when that will be, and the weather probably doesn’t matter much to the city.

Unlike Katucki, city officials are playing with house money. As of Friday, Norwich had paid a Burlington law firm a total of $25,285 in legal fees.

How can I know?

Like it or not, Norwich is in the public domain.

Jim Kenyon can be contacted at [email protected]

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