|The open meeting law applies to boards and
commissions, not to individual officials. There is no right to sit in the town
managers office and watch her conduct town business. There is no right to be present
at site visits for tax assessments or abatements, or to oversee the routine day-to-day
administration of the town. 1 V.S.A. § 312(g).
Sometimes a board
acts in a quasi-judicial capacity. It conducts a hearing on a variance or a
conditional use permit, or when it hears tax appeals. In these instances, although the
hearing is open, only interested parties (as defined by the relevant statute) may be
heard, and deliberations that follow may be closed to the public. 1 V.S.A. § 312(e)(f).
The open meeting law acknowledges this as an exception to the general rule about board
action. When acting on these cases, boards may issue their decisions in writing, without
the formality of a meeting where the decision is announced.
Some boards go beyond the requirements of the law and do everything in
public (except quasi-judicial decisions where due process may require private
deliberations.) The risks entailed in letting everybody know its business are not small,
but these boards will discuss everything except lawsuits in open session, and go out of
their way to inform the public in attendance at the meeting of the subject as it is
discussed. There is no penalty for extra openness and a high return on the investment if
the public understands you have nothing to hide.
The law on open meetings is not itself going to guarantee that every
decision made by a board is the right decision. It is not a mechanism for enlarging the
board to include vocal members of the public with a strong point of view. In the end,
after discussing an issue, a board is going to make a decision with motion and vote or
pass over the question, and that decision is the boards to make.