Weston Conservation Commission accused of violating open meeting law

Magicpiano (CC 2.0).</p> " data-image-caption="<p>The Weston Village Store. Photo by <a href=https://vtdigger.org/2022/07/05/weston-conservation-commission-accused-of-violating-open-meeting-law/"https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Village_Store,_Weston,_Vermont.jpg">Magicpiano (CC 2.0).</p> " data-medium-file="https://vtdigger.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Weston-Village-Store-300x200.jpeg" data-large-file="https://vtdigger.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Weston-Village-Store-610x406.jpeg" width="610" height="406" src='data:image/svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns=%22http://www.w3.org/2000/svg%22%20viewBox=%220%200%20610%20406%22%3E%3C/svg%3E' data-src="https://vtdigger.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Weston-Village-Store-610x406.jpeg" alt="" class="lazyload wp-image-397595" data-srcset="https://vtdigger.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Weston-Village-Store-610x406.jpeg 610w, https://vtdigger.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Weston-Village-Store-300x200.jpeg 300w, https://vtdigger.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Weston-Village-Store-125x83.jpeg 125w, https://vtdigger.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Weston-Village-Store-768x511.jpeg 768w, https://vtdigger.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Weston-Village-Store.jpeg 960w" data-sizes="(max-width: 610px) 100vw, 610px" />
The Weston Village Store in the heart of the Windsor County town. The town's conservation commission has failed to post its meeting agendas in advance or to make virtual meetings accessible to the public. Photo by Magicpiano (CC 2.0).

Ken Hall, who was a member of the Weston Conservation Commission from 2014 to 2018 and was reappointed in April, was twice stymied when he tried to attend commission meetings at the beginning of this year.

In a June 6 letter to the co-chairs of the commission, Andrew Harper and Deborah Hennessey, Hall detailed his difficulties: In February, the commission did not post a notice of its meeting, he said, and in March, the meeting was held via Zoom, but the link was not publicized.

Now a sitting member, Hall said he’s tried for months to get the commission to address the alleged violations, but has grown frustrated by the response.

“I don't know if it's because they don't like being told they weren't doing it right or why the reaction was what it was,” Hall said. “It shouldn't be controversial to expect a public body to abide by the statutes.” 

Vermont’s open meeting law requires that public bodies provide advance public notice of meetings and meeting agendas, allow members of the public to attend and participate in meetings, and record meeting minutes and make them publicly available. 

So far this year, the Conservation Commission has not made minutes available for four of its six meetings, according to a review of its website. Since June 2020, at least 11 virtual meeting agendas failed to include a Zoom link to allow for public attendance. 

Beyond the alleged violations, Hall contends that because the commission has responded to his complaints in written letters — and not public meetings — its response has fallen short. 

Hall points to advice posted by The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, a nonprofit that advises municipalities, which notes that the open meeting law requires that a public body must respond publicly in a meeting within 10 calendar days after receiving written notice alleging a violation. 

“Logistically,” the league says, “this means that it must immediately call a special meeting if a regularly scheduled meeting does not fall within this timeframe and provide adequate notice and warning of that meeting, including an agenda.”

The state’s open meeting law also requires a public body to cure violations within 14 calendar days of public acknowledgement of the violation. 

Hall first raised his concerns about the violations during a May 5 meeting and requested that the commission discuss them at its next meeting.

During the meeting on June 2, Hall passed out copies of Vermont’s open meeting law and explained how the commission had violated it. 

In response, according to the meeting minutes, “(Harper) said it was (Hall’s) fault because he had made no effort to join in.”

Hall replied that the only effort required by the public should be to look at the meeting’s agenda and decide whether to attend, according to the minutes. 

The exchange prompted a back-and-forth of letters between Hall and his commission colleagues, totaling five in all. They started with the June 6 letter sent from Hall to Harper and co-chair Deborah Hennessey, in which Hall detailed the alleged violations and urged the duo to take action. 

In a written response nine days later, Hennessey and Harper said they would review the past meeting minutes to determine if any actions needed to be ratified because they had been approved at a meeting that didn’t comply with the open meeting law. 

Hall said that Harper and Hennessey’s letter was written without knowledge or consent of the five other members of the commission, arguing that “brings up the question of what other things our board and commission chairs are empowered to do just on their own.”

“That's what doesn't make sense to me, besides the fact that they just refused to deal with it during the meeting,” Hall said. 

Hennessey declined to comment. Harper did not respond to VTDigger’s requests for comment by email on Friday and Tuesday.

The commission posted Hall’s letter on its website, but Harper and Hennessey have not responded to the allegations at a public meeting since Hall’s first letter on June 6.

“This could have been taken care of during the meeting when it was brought up on June 2,” Hall said. “It would have taken 20 minutes and a couple of votes. But now it's all on the Internet for everyone to see.”

Hall followed up with another letter on June 20, pointing out that responding to open meeting law allegations publicly means bringing them up during an open meeting. 

He asked the commission to respond to the allegations in a public meeting within 10 days, in compliance with Vermont’s open meeting law. The 10 days ended June 30 at noon. Harper and Hennessey responded on June 24 that they will discuss the allegations during their regularly scheduled meeting on July 7 instead. 

Hall said he plans to take the violation to the Secretary of State’s office, but the only remedy the state open meeting law provides is to file a lawsuit against the conservation commission. 

Correction: The commission chair's first name has been corrected.

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Jenna Peterson

About Jenna

Jenna Peterson is a student at the University of Southern California, where she is majoring in journalism and political science. She is news editor at the Daily Trojan at USC and was an editor of the Burlington High School student newspaper when it received a special New England Newspaper & Press Association award for successfully fighting a censorship effort by school administrators.

Email: [email protected]

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