Vermont Open Meeting Law
Governing bodies and the public have a long-standing relationship of mistrust. Whether it's with the local Selectboard or the Federal Government, people are perpetually demanding more transparency. Sunshine laws, as they're also called, vary from state to state, and while their premise isn't complicated, their practice can be.
In Vermont, for example, if a Selectboard member texts another Selectboard member to discuss Board business, and then that member calls a third to discuss the same thing three days later, that's technically a meeting. Let's say all five Selectboard members attend a Green Up Day gathering - totally fine - but if two of them start chatting off to the side about Board business, and then a third one walks past and decides to chime in, that's a meeting. Or, say a Selectboard member emails another one about an upcoming Board meeting, but rather than just sticking to scheduling details they end up sharing their opinion on the matter. If the member who received the email then forwards it on to a third member, or maybe even the entire Board, then it becomes a meeting.
You can see how it starts to get a little tricky, maybe even counterintuitive. The idea is that if Board business is being deliberated on without the option of a public audience, and without the formal taking of minutes, then whatever decision comes of it was not made transparently.
When Board members do end up deliberating amongst one another via email or text messages, in order to resolve the lack of transparency inherent in doing so, the law mandates that those messages become a part of public record. And if their thoughts were shared, shall we say, less than professionally, the law doesn't care one bit. They're public, and they must be turned over upon request.
It can seem excessive at times as a member of a town board, council, commission, or committee. Some board members might even feel like their own rights to privacy are being infringed upon if a citizen makes a formal request to see their emails or text messages concerning a particular matter of business. But remember, the sunshine laws were created to bring light to the process of governing bodies. People don't just want to hear decisions; they want to know how and why those decisions came to be. They want to be sure that those decisions were made fairly and in consideration of all.
Refer to the infographic above in moments of confusion. If you're a board member, I urge you to print it out, laminate it, and keep it on hand to refer to the next time you're about to hit 'send'. If you're a member of the public, then use it to hold your elected and appointed officials accountable. Their power to make decisions is a privilege, given to them by the voters, and it does them some good to be reminded of that from time to time.
Note: this infographic has been updated since it was first published.