2 WHY ARE WE HERE? Democracy-Accountability-Openness The public has a right to know! Open meeting and public records laws protect our direct access to the decisions that affect us. Understanding these laws makes everyone a better citizen.
3 IN GOVERNMENT, THE ULTIMATE BOSS IS THE PUBLIC Vermont Constitution - Chapter 1, Article 6. That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.
4 IN GOVERNMENT, THE ULTIMATE BOSS IS THE PUBLIC 1 V.S.A Declaration of public policy public commissions, boards and councils and other public agencies in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business and are accountable to them 1 V.S.A Statement of policy free and open examination of records Officers of government are trustees and servants of the people and it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment...
5 OPEN MEETINGS 1 V.S.A
6 WHO MUST COMPLY? PUBLIC BODIES of the state and its municipalities: State and municipal boards, councils, and commissions Committees and subcommittees of these bodies NOT INCLUDED: Individual officials Councils established by the Governor exclusively for policy advice Judicial branch Public Service Board Nonprofits (generally)
7 WHEN DOES THE OML APPLY? Any time a quorum holds a meeting. QUORUM: a majority of the entire public body. 1 V.S.A Joint authority When joint authority is given to three or more, the concurrence of a majority of such number shall be sufficient and shall be required in its exercise. MEETING: a gathering of a quorum of a public body for the purpose of discussing business or taking action.
8 WHEN DOES THE OML APPLY? A meeting can occur regardless of physical location. No exceptions for work sessions or retreats. A meeting can come together over a span of time. Watch out for strings and social media discussions. Meeting does not include: Communications to schedule a meeting, organize an agenda, or distribute materials to discuss at a meeting. Clerical work. Staff work assignments. Routine day-to-day administrative matters, if no action is required and no money appropriated or spent. Site inspections. Quasi-judicial deliberations.
9 ADVANCE PUBLIC NOTICE REGULAR MEETINGS: Adopt a resolution setting the regular time and place. Post and make an agenda available 48 hours before each meeting. SPECIAL MEETINGS: Give 24 hours notice (time, place, and purpose) to: newspaper or radio station serving the area; any person who specifically asked in writing; and all members of the public body. Post and make an agenda available 24 hours in advance. EMERGENCY MEETINGS: Only used when necessary to respond to unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention. Give some public notice as soon as possible before the meeting.
10 AGENDAS When? At least 48 hours before each regular meeting. At least 24 hours before each special meeting. Where? On a website that public body maintains or designates (if one exists). Municipal public bodies only: in or near the town clerk s office and in two other designated public places in the municipality. Made available to any person prior to meeting upon specific request. What else? Should address specific topics to be discussed and potential actions. Any addition or deletion must be the first act of business at the meeting. Any other adjustment may be made during the meeting.
11 MINUTES Why? As the permanent record of a public body s business, minutes preserve the body s history. Who? Kept by the clerk or secretary of the public body. What? Give a true indication of the business of the meeting, covering all topics and motions that arise. At minimum: members present; active participants; motions, proposals, resolutions and their dispositions; vote results, noting individual votes if roll call.
12 MINUTES When? No later than five calendar days after the meeting. Where? Made available for inspection and copying upon request. Posted to a website, if the public body maintains or designates one. What else? Except for draft minutes being replaced with updates, minutes must remain posted to the website for at least one year after the meeting.
13 WHEN CAN A BOARD MEET IN PRIVATE? DELIBERATIVE SESSION When? In conjunction with quasi-judicial proceedings, after evidence/testimony is taken at a public hearing. Why? To weigh, examine, and discuss the reasons for and against an act or decision. What else? Deliberating privately is optional! The written decision, if a public record, need not be adopted at an open meeting.
14 WHEN CAN A BOARD MEET IN PRIVATE? EXECUTIVE SESSION What is it? A closed portion of a public meeting. When is it appropriate? Only if the business to be considered fits into one of 14 statutory categories. Only if the public body moves to enter in open session and indicates its reason for doing so. Only for talk, not action: No formal or binding action may be taken while in executive session. Exception: real estate options
15 WHEN CAN A BOARD MEET IN PRIVATE? EXECUTIVE SESSION Some PERMISSIBLE REASONS require an additional specific finding that premature public knowledge would clearly place the public body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage : Contracts Labor relations agreements with employees Arbitration or mediation Grievances, other than tax grievances Pending or probable civil litigation or prosecution, if public body is or may be a party Confidential attorney-client communications, if made to provide legal services to the public body
16 WHEN CAN A BOARD MEET IN PRIVATE? EXECUTIVE SESSION Other PERMISSIBLE REASONS include consideration of: Negotiating or securing real estate purchase options Appointment, employment, evaluation, discipline, or dismissal of public officer or employee Student academic records, suspension, or discipline Exempt public records under the Public Record Act Clear and imminent peril to public safety Municipal or school security or emergency response measures, if disclosure could jeopardize public safety.
17 WHEN CAN A BOARD MEET IN PRIVATE? What else? EXECUTIVE SESSION The public body decides who attends: legal counsel; staff; clerical assistants; any persons who are subjects of discussion or whose info is needed. Unless other law requires it, a public body may still opt to conduct its business in public, even if an executive session is permissible.
18 MEETING BY ELECTRONIC MEANS A member participating remotely must: Identify him/herself when the meeting convenes. Be able to hear and be heard throughout the meeting. If a quorum or more is participating remotely: Agenda must designate a physical location where the public can attend and participate. One member (or designee) must be physically present. Any vote not unanimous must be taken by roll call.
19 CAN BOARDS USE & SOCIAL MEDIA? ABSOLUTELY YES: Electronic communications to schedule a meeting, organize an agenda, or distribute materials to discuss at a meeting. PROBABLY NOT (ASK YOUR LAWYER): Group s involving a quorum of a public body that discuss the body s business. Collective editing of a document by a quorum. Participation in a Facebook group or Front Porch Forum by a quorum if the body s business is discussed.
20 PUBLIC PARTICIPATION Members of the public have the right to: ATTEND! Obtain meeting agendas in advance. Be notified directly of upcoming special meetings. Disability accommodations, pursuant to Vermont s anti-discrimination statutes. PARTICIPATE! A reasonable opportunity to express opinions on matters considered, subject to reasonable rules. ENFORCE THE LAW!
21 WHY COMPLY? Meetings held without respecting the details of the law may be illegal, and the courts may regard any actions taken in those meetings as voidable. More importantly, illegal meetings offend our notions of: openness, accountability, our democracy. In Vermont, the people rule, sometimes directly, sometimes through elected or appointed representatives, but always with the benefit of public scrutiny.
22 WHY COMPLY? The following persons can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined: A member of public body who knowingly and intentionally violates the OML. A person who knowing and intentionally violates the OML on behalf of a member of a public body. A person who knowingly and intentionally participates in the wrongful exclusion of a person from a meeting. The Attorney General or any aggrieved individual can bring suit in court, asking for: Injunctive relief (STOP a specified act or behavior). Declaratory judgment (make a binding determination of rights). Attorney s fees and costs, under some circumstances.
23 ENFORCEMENT 1) Written notice to the public body. By aggrieved individual or Attorney General. Alleging specific violation and requesting specific cure. 2) Public body s public response. Within 10 calendar days of receiving written notice. Either: Acknowledging violation and stating intent to cure; OR Stating no violation occurred so no cure is necessary.
24 ENFORCEMENT 3) Public body s cure, if acknowledges violation. Within 14 calendar days of public response. Ratify, or declare as void, any action taken at or resulting from: a meeting that was improperly noticed; a meeting that wrongfully excluded someone; OR an unauthorized executive session. Adopt specific measures that actually prevent future violations. 4) Aggrieved individual s recourse, if unsatisfied. File suit in Superior Court within one year after the meeting.
25 OPEN MEETINGS 1 V.S.A QUESTIONS?
26 PUBLIC RECORDS 1 V.S.A
27 WHAT IS A PUBLIC RECORD? Any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of public agency business. Remember! Records are not limited to paper! All government records are public records. Some public records are exempt from disclosure.
28 WHO MUST COMPLY? PUBLIC AGENCIES of the state and its municipalities: State and municipal agencies, boards, departments, commissions, committees, branches, instrumentalities, and authorities. NOT INCLUDED: Nonprofits (generally)
29 WHO MAY ASK TO INSPECT OR COPY Any person. A PUBLIC RECORD? The identity and motive of the requestor cannot be considered when weighing access to public documents. Shlansky v. City of Burlington and Burlington Police Department, 2010 VT 90.
30 You may inspect: HOW DO I MAKE A REQUEST? State records on weekdays, 9-12 and 1-4. Municipal records during customary business hours (i.e. when office is open to provide services). TIPS FOR REQUESTERS: No in writing requirement (but it s a good idea). List or specifically describe the records you d like to see. Be clear: INSPECT or COPY. If you ask for copies, you may request estimate of the fee. Date your request and include your contact info.
31 HOW DO I COMPLY? A little advance planning Work on RECORDS MANAGEMENT. Need help? Contact the Vermont State Records and Archives Administration (VSARA) at (802) Adopt a RECORDS POLICY. Need help? Municipal officials can call VLCT at (800) Know your RESOURCES. What does the law say? Ask the Secretary of State! Can I use this exemption? Ask your attorney!
32 HOW DO I COMPLY? Promptly produce the record for inspection. Exceptions: Active use or in storage. Exempt under statute. Record does not exist. Unusual circumstances. Accept the request in any manner or format. Exception: If staff time costs are involved, an agency may require requests to be made in writing. If necessary, consult with the requestor to clarify the request or get additional information that will help you respond.
33 HOW DO I COMPLY? ACTIVE USE OR IN STORAGE The custodian must: Make record available for inspection within one calendar week. Certify this in writing to the requester, setting the date and hour of availability.
34 The custodian must: HOW DO I COMPLY? EXEMPT UNDER STATUTE Make the determination and notify the requester in writing within three business days. Include the following in the notice: Identity of records withheld Statutory basis for denial Supporting facts for denial Names and positions of persons responsible for denial To whom the requester may appeal ( head of agency )
35 The custodian must: HOW DO I COMPLY? RECORD DOES NOT EXIST Certify this in writing, specifically stating that record does not exist under the name given by the requestor or by any other name known to the custodian.
36 HOW DO I COMPLY? UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES A deadline may be extended by up to 10 business days IF the custodian needs to: Search for and collect records from remote facilities. Search for/collect/examine a large volume of separate, distinct records. In this situation, a custodian may ask the requester to narrow the scope of the request. Consult with another agency or with the Attorney General. The custodian must: Give written notice to requester, stating reason for extension and expected date of compliance.
37 MAKING A DETERMINATION THE RULE: Public agencies MUST produce public records for inspection and copying unless the record is exempt under statute. THE POLICY: in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize [government] decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment. 1 V.S.A THE BURDEN OF PROOF: The PRA represents a strong policy favoring access We construe these exceptions strictly against the custodians of records and resolve any doubts in favor of disclosure The burden of proof is on the agency seeking to avoid disclosure. Wesco v. Sorrell, 2004 VT 102.
38 MAKING A DETERMINATION Where are the exemptions? 40+ are listed in the PRA itself (1 V.S.A. 317). Approximately 200 are scattered throughout statute. Each public agency should know and maintain a compilation of the specific State and Federal laws and regulations that affect access to records in its custody. RESOURCES: Legislative Council s List of PRA Exemptions SoS Right to Know Database
39 MAKING A DETERMINATION No two exemptions are alike: Some are narrow; some are broad. Some contain exceptions. Some require balancing of specified factors or interests. Some refer to outside statutes or common law principles. Many have been interpreted by the Vermont Supreme Court. Deciding whether an exemption may be used to withhold a public record depends heavily on the content and the facts. SAFEST COURSE: Err on the side of openness and consult your legal counsel!
40 MAKING A DETERMINATION What if only part of a record is exempt? REDACT the exempted information and provide the remainder. Must I gather new information or create new documents in response to a request? NO. A requester cannot obligate the government to create a record that is not already in existence or required by law. Must I withhold a document if an exemption applies? IT DEPENDS. The PRA does NOT require this, but outside law might. SAFEST COURSE: Err on the side of openness and consult your legal counsel!
41 COPYING AND FEES You may charge for copies (unless other law applies): The actual cost of providing a copy, if using own equipment. Established by Secretary of State s Uniform Fee Schedule, or by local legislative body if it so acts, using statutory factors. The cost of mailing or transmitting the copy. The cost of staff time associated with providing a copy, IF: the time directly involved exceeds 30 minutes; the agency agrees to create a new record; or the agency agrees to provide the record in nonstandard format and the time directly involved exceeds 30 minutes. An agency must provide a fee estimate upon request.
42 OUR TWO CENTS: COPYING & FEES STAFF TIME We think staff time charges are appropriate only if an individual requests a copy of a record, and then only for staff time over and above the time necessary to comply with a request to inspect. We don t recommend charging for staff time when: The requester snaps a photo of a record. An electronic record must be printed to present it for viewing. Tracking down a record takes some time. SAFEST COURSE: Err on the side of openness and consult your legal counsel!
43 WHY COMPLY? An agency that denies access to non-exempt public records may face litigation and could be charged the requester s court costs. An individual who willfully destroys or discards a public record without authority faces fines. More importantly, prompt compliance supports our notions of: openness, accountability, our democracy.
44 ENFORCEMENT 1) Appeal to head of agency. 2) Within five business days, head of agency must: Make the records available promptly; or Give notice of denial in writing, including statutory basis, brief statement of reasoning and supporting facts, and details about appeal rights. 3) Denial upheld? No head of agency? Time limits ignored? You can file appeal in court. 30-day deadline. generally counted from date of denial.
45 PUBLIC RECORDS 1 V.S.A QUESTIONS?
46 THANK YOU! Please call or visit our office with any questions! James C. Condos Vermont Secretary of State 128 State Street Montpelier, VT
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