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NEWPORT CITY â€“ Members of governing bodies have to be careful what they discuss outside a warned meeting or at an informal gathering. Last week, city attorney Bill Davies outlined to council members what Vermont law allows and doesnâ€™t allow regarding open meeting laws.Â
Governing bodies may not hear or discuss official business at any unwarned meeting or informal gathering if the members present equal a quorum. The exception of the rule is site inspections for assessing damage or making tax assessments or abatements, or clerical or work assignments of staff or other personnel. Routine day-to-day administrative manners that donâ€™t require action by the public body may be conducted outside a warned meeting, providing no money is appropriated.
Perception is extremely important, Davies said. â€śIf a quorum of you happens to attend a parade, itâ€™s not reasonable to anticipate there will be any city business conducted,â€ť said Davies. â€śThatâ€™s just basically common sense.â€ť On the other hand, if a quorum of council members attend a meeting such as the ones conducted by the Newport City Fire Department, then it is reasonable to assume that some city business will come up.
Any member of a governing body who violates Vermontâ€™s open meeting law could face a fine up to $500.Â The way around the problem, said Davies, is for the council toÂ put out a notice that the majority of the membership might attend a particular meeting.Â
Council members may meet for coffee as long as they donâ€™t discuss city business if a quorum is present. If a member of the public approaches council members about an issue during that gathering, the council has to inform the person they canâ€™t hear what he or she has to say and to come to a city council meeting.
That same rule stands if someone brings up a question regarding city business at an event such as a ribbon cutting.
â€śCommon sense needs to prevail,â€ť said Davies. â€śThere are going to be times a quorum of the council accidentally ends up at the same place, maybe at a grocery store.â€ť
Davies told council members it is his job to keep them out of court. He also said in a democracy, openness creates and invites trust; a lack of openness creates paranoia and distrust.