Jim Kenyon: Open and shut, a tale of two town governments

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 01-17-2022 8:43 PM

Despite her recent appointment as Weathersfield’s first-ever “Open Meeting Law Enforcement Officer,” Olivia Savage doesn’t plan to start carrying a gun and badge.

Savage might, however, put a set of flashing blue lights on her car, she told me in jest.

All joking aside, Weathersfield deserves high-fives for making government transparency a greater priority. Too often, local officials — on both sides of the Connecticut River in the Upper Valley — give short shrift to state laws meant to keep the public better informed.

Savage, who already handles clerical duties at the town offices, now has the additional responsibility of making sure Weathersfield’s elected and appointed board members adhere to Vermont’s open meeting law. For starters, that means agendas and minutes are available for public inspection in a timely fashion.

She’ll also be on the lookout for overuse of executive sessions — the closed-door meetings allowed under state law to conduct some business, including contract negotiations, without public scrutiny.

When new members join the town’s various boards, she’ll hold training sessions on the law’s do’s and don’ts. (For example, group emails used for discussion purposes are a no-no.)

Having an open meeting law enforcement officer was Town Manager Brandon Gulnick’s idea. And he purposely went with an official sounding title.

“People need to know that we’re taking the law seriously,” he told me. “We want to make sure that we’re promoting transparency.”

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When word spread that Gulnick had created the position, it “sparked” conversations with his counterparts in other towns. They were curious about what was going on in Weathersfield that prompted him to place a government watchdog inside town hall.

While the town was doing a decent job of complying with state law, improvement was needed, he said.

Weathersfield resident Nancy Nutile-McMenemy, who posts a weekly blog about town happenings, had pointed out that minutes of Selectboard meetings weren’t always posted on the town website within five days, as required by state law. Two boards also had to postpone meetings because the public hadn’t been given advance notice.

In the town’s approach to the law regarding public meetings, Gulnick “saw something was missing,” Savage said. “We’re trying to stay ahead now of any potential problems.”

Vermont’s law regarding public meetings and records dates back to the 1970s post-Watergate era, when states figured they had to do something to regain public trust in government.

But Vermont’s effort to bring the inner workings of government into the open has proved little more than window dressing. The Public Records Act alone has some 200 exemptions to disclosure, Seven Days, a Burlington-based weekly, reported in 2020.

The law also lacks teeth. If towns lose a civil lawsuit for violating the law, they have little to worry about. Collecting damages, such as attorneys’ fees, is nearly impossible under the law. The maximum fine for violating the open meeting law is $500, and the next time I hear a fine was leveled, it’ll be news to me.

With so little at stake, it’s no wonder many town officials don’t see the law as a big deal.

It probably helps that Gulnick is a relative newcomer to local government. Before entering the public administration field in Massachusetts, he taught English to international students.

After getting his first town manager’s job two years ago, Gulnick, now 32, recently signed a five-year contract in Weathersfield that currently pays $81,000 annually.

With that kind of job security, Gulnick doesn’t have to worry about town board members who might disapprove of the authority he’s giving Savage to ride herd.

“The public wants to know what’s going on its town,” Gulnick told me. “This should be something every community has.”

Did you hear that, Norwich?

Public officials in one of Vermont’s wealthiest communities have long pooh-poohed open government. (The Selectboard’s obsession with secrecy in its search for yet another town manager is the latest example.)

Norwich officials tend to treat the law regarding open meetings and public records as unworthy of their valuable time.

Which might explain Norwich resident Chris Katucki’s lawsuit against the town. In a suit filed last year in Windsor County Superior Court, Katucki alleges the Norwich Selectboard “routinely enters into executive sessions improperly. Since at least 2019, the Selectboard pays only lip service to the statutory requirements” of Vermont’s open meeting law.

Katucki was a lawyer at a major Boston firm before Lou Gehrig’s disease cut his career short. For several years, he’s posted about town government on his Norwich Observer blog.

Katucki maintains that Norwich officials have violated the open meeting law by setting up “working groups” to, among other things, assist the Planning Commission and reorganize the town’s finance office.

Norwich uses these working groups to conduct town business while keeping the public “in the dark,” Katucki argues.

“If compliance is problematic, perhaps the town needs fewer working groups or more resources dedicated to keeping the public in the loop,” he wrote in his legal complaint. “Public participation should not be viewed as a nuisance.”

When I asked Norwich Selectboard Chairman Roger Arnold about the lawsuit, he emailed that the town “believes it has complied with the Open Meeting Law and we look forward to the court’s decision.”

It’s anyone’s guess when that will be, and time probably doesn’t matter much to the town.

Unlike Katucki, town officials are playing with house money. As of Friday, Norwich had paid a Burlington law firm a total of $25,285 in legal fees.

How do I know?

Like it or not, Norwich, it’s a matter of public record.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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