Substantial changes to Vermont’s open meeting law go into effect next week. Among the changes: for the first time towns with websites will have to meet specific posting requirements.
But some towns are considering taking down their websites rather than run the risk of not meeting the mandates.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns sent out a recent recommendation to its members:
“Prepare your municipality’s website, if there is one, so that you will be ready to post agendas before meetings and minutes five days after those meetings occur,” the league said. “Or de-activate the website to avoid violating this requirement.”
VLCT Executive Director Steve Jeffrey notes this requirement needs to be met for every public body, beginning July 1:
“This affects every single committee, commission, board of trustees, library commissions, planning commissions, zoning boards of adjustment – all of whom operate pretty much independently of each other and a lot of them that don’t have any full-time staff, certainly, and a lot of them that are not as technology capable as the younger generation certainly is,” Jeffrey said. “So it affects so many different entities and people who are giving of their time and trying to help their communities, and now there’s this additional obligation that they have to meet.”
Towns that don’t have a website don’t need to comply with this aspect of the law. And Jeffrey worries that may lead to unintended consequences.
“What we’re concerned about is this might lead some towns to not put up a website, or in some cases – very limited cases so far – we’ve heard from some towns that are considering taking their websites down,” he said.
Montgomery is one town that has decided to take down its town website for the time being. Montgomery Select Board Chair Scott Perry, who volunteers to update his town’s website, says the town needs more time to be sure it can meet the new online posting requirements.
“The first thing I guess I would say is it’s not a protest,” he said. “We’ve been committed and embraced open government since 2003, that’s when we first brought the website online. … But the changes to the open meeting law, in our view, require us to do some other things now. And this is kind of a sea-change because there’s never been a mandate for any information on or off of a municipal website.”
Perry says the select board hopes to have Montgomery’s website back up later in the summer. But first town officials need to be sure all the town’s various boards and committees are up to speed on posting minutes and agendas.
“I think all the towns want to comply. They see the web as a very powerful tool to help their citizens become engaged,” he said. “But when you start adding requirements and laws, then it needs to be thought out, I think, a little bit more.”
Wolcott just put a new website online this week, thanks to assistance from the Snelling Center. And town employees were trained on how to post to the new site. Wolcott has had a town website for about five years, but Town Clerk Linda Martin says she had to rely on a third party to post information to the old site.
“I didn’t really feel like I had any control over it. If I had not had this new opportunity for this new website, I would have taken my old one down for that reason,” she said.
Martin says now she’s ready to meet the new requirements, and she doesn’t think it will take more that 20 minutes a week to post all the town’s minutes and agendas.
“I’ve set up a day –one day a week – that we’ll just go on and maintain the site. And then as someone emails us an agenda or minutes, we’ll just turn it around immediately and put it on there. And it’s so easy when you can do it yourself,” she said.
The changes to the open meeting law go into effect July 1. But there is a one-year grace period before towns could be liable for penalties for missing the online posting requirements.