Changes to the Open Meeting Law

Act 143 from the 2013-2014 session of the Vermont legislature creates changes to the Open Meeting Law effective on July 1, 2014. Some of the key changes clarify when public bodies can enter into executive session to have private discussions, provide details on how to conduct meetings electronically, create new requirements for posting meeting agendas in advance, and create a procedure for remedying Open Meeting Law violations.

New Executive Session Rules

In its new form, the Open Meeting Law makes clear that public bodies can enter into executive session to discuss “pending or probable civil litigation or a prosecution, to which the public body is or may be a party” as well as “confidential attorney-client communications made for the purpose of providing legal services to the body.” The state of Vermont law was previously unclear whether these situations provided adequate grounds for executive session, and the new legislation now removes any doubt. Additionally, public bodies are empowered to enter executive session to discuss “municipal and school security or emergency response measures, the disclosure of which could jeopardize public safety.”

Formally added to the law is also the restriction that executive session is not available for the discussion of tax grievances, and that a public body must make final decisions to hire or appoint a public officer or employee outside of executive session along with explaining the reasons for its decision.

Electronic Meeting Attendance

Other changes to the Open Meeting Law substantially expand the provisions on the attendance of a meeting by electronic means. The law provides clear authorization for members of a public body to attend a meeting electronically, such as by telephone or video conferencing, and it specifies procedures for how to do so, including the taking of all votes by roll call. Additional steps will be required when a quorum or more members of the public body attend the meeting electronically.

Agendas and Minutes Requirements

The public posting of agendas in advance of meetings is also now formally required. Starting July 1, 2014, agendas must be posted online, if a municipal website exists, prior to meetings. Agendas must also be posted in three public places including in or near the municipal office prior to meetings. Further, meeting minutes will be required to be posted online, if a website exists, within five days following a meeting.

Penalties and Enforcement

Final notable changes to the Open Meeting Law expand its provisions on penalties and enforcement. New procedures require complainants to give notice to public bodies before filing civil suits for alleged violations, and the law prescribes how a public body must respond to allegations. If a court finds a public body in violation, the public body may be required to pay the prevailing party’s legal fees if there was no “reasonable basis in fact and law for its position” or if it failed to act in good faith.

For additional information on the recent changes to the Open Meeting Law or questions about the Open Meeting Law’s requirements generally, please contact Stitzel, Page & Fletcher at 802.660.2555 or at .