By Guy Page
Legislation discussed and agreed upon during a Senate Government Operations Committee teleconference today would, during the Covid-19 State of Emergency, waive the state’s Open Meeting Law requirement for government bodies to meet in one physical location. Instead they could conduct all business — including decision-making — via electronic meeting. The public also could attend by electronic means.
Significantly, these Open Meeting Law changes would not apply to the Vermont Legislature, which must meet physically together and in public to adopt legislation, Chair Jeanette White (D-Windham) said. However, the proposed changes would cover all other municipal, countywide, and state government ‘public bodies.’
A companion bill proposed sweeping 2020 election powers for the Secretary of State and the Governor, including requiring all town clerks to mail ballots to every registered voter in the state, count those ballots ahead of time, and require Australian rather than Town Meeting-style voting.
These powers could be exercised during 2020 as a result of emergency conditions, but whether or not an actual, legal State of Emergency still exists, Secretary of State Jim Condos insisted after two senators expressed concern.
Proposed Open Meeting Law changes
Details of the proposed Open Meeting Law changes include:
1. during the Covid-19 State of Emergency, a quorum or more of the members of a public body may attend a regular, special, or emergency meeting by electronic or other means without being physically present at a designated meeting location;
2. the public body shall not be required to designate a physical meeting location where the public may attend; and
3. the members and staff of the public body shall not be required to be physically present at a designated meeting location…when the public body meets electronically, the public body shall use technology that permits the attendance of the public through electronic means. The public body shall post information on how the public may access meetings electronically and shall include this information in the published agenda for each meeting. In the event of a staffing shortage due to COVID-19 in 2020, a public body may extend the time limit for the posting of minutes.
Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns expressed general support for the proposed Open Meeting Law changes.
Proposed 2020 election changes
A companion bill about elections would waive the candidate requirement “to collect voter signatures in order to have the person’s name placed on any ballot in 2020, including on any local election ballot.”
During 2020, the Secretary of State and the Governor may order or permit appropriate elections procedures for the purpose of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of voters, elections workers, and candidates in carrying out elections. As Condos told the committee today, “it would require two of us” himself and the governor, to implement these changes, which include:
1. requiring mail balloting by requiring town clerks to send ballots by mail to all registered voters
2. creating early or mail ballot collection stations;
3. permitting municipal clerks to process and begin counting ballots in a 30-day window preceding the day of an election;
4. permitting drive-up, car window collection of ballots by election officials;
5. extending the time for municipal clerks to process and count ballots;
6. extending voting hours on the day of an election.
7. any municipality may apply the Australian ballot system to any or all municipal elections held in the year 2020 by vote of its legislative body.
Secretary of State Condos and Director of Elections Will Senning explained why these special provisions should be available if necessary throughout the election. Every aspect of the 2020 election is “of a piece,” Senning said. Furthermore, the coronavirus may return in the fall, after the current State of Emergency is ended:
“There’s a strong likelihood the virus will come back during the fall,” Senning said. Added Condos, “the military is already gearing up for a second wave of Covid-19 in the fall.”
“It’s important for this time, and this time only. It would go away after the election,” Condos summarized.
“When we’re weighing risk and rewards, the rewards are much more.” Senning said. “I would love to change nothing….but unfortunately we’re in this situation.”
Senators Allison Clarkson (D-Windham) and Brian Collamore (R-Rutland) both expressed concern about extending the special election powers throughout 2020, regardless of the presence of an actual state of emergency. “This is overkill,” Clarkson said. The virus “coming back is speculative,” Collamore said.
After listening to Condos and Senning explain why their office needs to be able to invoke the powers if necessary throughout the 2020 election cycle, the senators agreed unanimously to both the Open Meeting Law and elections changes. The bill would require formal approval by the Senate and House, meeting in open session, as well as the governor’s approval.
During discussion of the Open Meeting Law changes, Condos pressed for electronic recording of all meetings. But the committee refused, saying that just holding the meetings electronically would be difficult enough for many all-volunteer municipal bodies.
Indeed, the difficulties of holding public meeting by teleconference were on full display during this morning’s call. Chair White repeatedly reminded callers to mute their phones as loud children could often be heard in the background. When Chair White asked a question during the call, an unidentified caller yelled “because you’re stupid” and then apparently hung up, prompting an extended requestl by White and others for meeting decorum. When another caller uttered a profanity, Sen. Clarkson chuckled and attributed the comment to Sen. Chris Bray — which he denied.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports.