(Host) The state Senate has advanced a bill that would strengthen the open meeting law by giving greater legal clout to those trying to open government meetings.
Most of the debate in the Senate focused on what constitutes a public meeting – and whether officials could inadvertently violate the law by communicating over the phone or by email.
Chittenden Senator Tim Ashe said he’s never viewed informal communication as a form of public meeting.
(Ashe) "The notion that three people couldn’t informally email each other might pose a real hardship in terms of doing business of those committees. In particular, I think a lot of these local boards might serve once a month or once every two months, and if they weren’t even allowed to informally email each other it might have a stifling effect on the work of those committees."
(Host) But Rutland Senator Peg Flory said the existing public meeting law could prohibit the kind of communication Ashe referred to.
(Flory) It’s an evolving world with emails. The whole purpose of open meeting laws and transparency in government is to have discussion out in the public and not hidden from the public.
(Host) The Senate bill tilts the legal balance for those who are trying to open up meetings. It says judges shall award legal fees to people who successfully sue over violations of the open meeting statute.
But the legislation also says the court doesn’t have to award legal fees if the judge finds that the public board acted reasonably and in good faith when it closed the meeting.