On Tuesday, April 22, the hiring committee met to interview three applicants for the open position, each in executive session. The committee, put together by town manager Scott Murphy, consisted of a member of the development review board, a selectboard member, an at-large member, and three members of the planning commission, Lynn Matthews, Carolyn Palmer, and chair Wendy Manners.
Vermont statute 310 states that an open meeting is “a gathering of a quorum of the members of a public body for the purpose of discussing the business of the public body or for the purpose of taking action.”
According to Murphy, the planning commission is tasked with interviewing candidates and making a recommendation to the selectboard, as part of the process for hiring or reappointing a zoning administrator. Because the three members of the planning commission were performing the duties of their body, the committee meeting technically doubled as a meeting of the planning commission.
Murphy said that none of the three planning commission members in attendance excused themselves because the committee members didn’t believe their work would fulfill a specific purpose of the planning commission. “It never came up because we had members of other committees there,” said Murphy, “We didn’t get the feeling that it was a planning commission quorum, we didn’t get that gist.”
Manners told The Deerfield Valley News that she questioned the meeting and the possibility of a quorum issue after it was over. According to Manners, Murphy told her that the town had a hiring process protocol that he was following, and it did not constitute a public meeting because it was a personnel issue. “My impression was that the issue had been vetted through attorneys, and they felt that since it was a personnel issue that it was not an open meeting,” said Manners.
According to deputy secretary of state Brian Leven, one way or another, the committee would be bound by open meeting laws. “It’s a meeting of a committee, and if there was a quorum of planning commission members discussing planning commission business, they need to comply with open meeting regulations,” said Leven.
In an email to Murphy, Sarah Jarvis, staff attorney at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, explained: “The gathering should have been warned as a meeting of the planning commission, because a quorum of the planning commission was present, and because the business of the town was discussed.”
The planning commission has only had to hold reappointment recommendation processes within the past six years, and Murphy said that having the members of the planning commission on the interview committee was for the purpose of making their recommendation process easier. Murphy said that in the future, the town will err on the side of caution when it comes to meetings of public bodies.
“We will be warning any meeting when there is a quorum of members going forward,” said Murphy.
According to Jarvis, actions taken in violation of open meeting law are not void, but are ineffective unless they are later ratified in an open meeting. “We recommend that as soon as you realize the mistake, that you put the issue on the agenda for an upcoming open meeting and discuss the issue,” said Jarvis. “Explain the circumstances/mistake, and then conduct a do-over of any vote that was taken in that mistakenly closed (or mistakenly unwarned) session.”
According to Murphy, no action or vote was taken at the unwarned meeting. “That is a good outcome,” said Murphy. “If there is another meeting, it will be warned and the inaction of the previous warning will be amended and the meeting will be conducted as required.”