OFFICE OF THE SELECTBOARD
Town of Halifax, Vermont
SELECTBOARD SPECIAL MEETING MINUTES
Call to Order
The meeting was called to order at 7:01 p.m. Selectboard members Lewis Sumner and Mitchell Green were present, Bradley Rafus was unable to attend. Also present were Paul Blais as Moderator, Tina Blais, Marketa Psenickova, Patrick Eck, Robert Teree, Marilyn Allen, Arthur R. Ferland, Andrea Rand, Marilou Parkhurst, Douglas Parkhurst, Rhonda Ashcraft, Keith C. Stone, Kaitlin Stone, Linda Lyon, Kathy Ashcroft, Jason T. Ashcroft, Jessica Cooney, and Robbin Gabriel.
Lewis Sumner advised the purpose of tonight’s meeting was to respond to a violation complaint. Sumner said he was sorry the meeting fell on a holiday, but the time for Board response was running out. Sumner then read Dr. Fabio Girelli-Carasi’s violation complaint letter for the record, as well as Girelli-Carasi’s email to the Attorney General’s office and Assistant Attorney General Jacob Humbert’s response. Girelli-Carasi’s letter stated, in part, that two violations had occurred; first, that the Selectboard’s June 23rd meeting was illegal because it was held in a physical location with no provision for remote telephonic access, and second, that it was illegal because there were more than 25 people present at an indoor meeting. (To read the full text of the letter, as well as Girelli-Carasi’s email exchange with the Attorney General’s office, see the link below these meeting minutes.) After reading the complaint letter Sumner read the text of 1 VSA. §314, the statute pertaining to violation complaints made against a public body. (A link to the full text of 1 VSA §314 has been provided below these meeting minutes.)
Sumner then read the Selectboard’s response to the violation complaint, as follows: The Selectboard has reviewed the charges and determined no violations took place, and therefore no cure is necessary. Specifically, the June 23rd meeting was properly warned, with a physical location provided, and the temporary coronavirus emergency law (Act 92) does not require remote telephonic access be provided for a meeting held in a physical location. The June 23rd meeting was an open-air meeting; the Town Garage bay doors were fully open, and participants could stand either on the bay floor or in the yard outside the doors. Some never left their vehicles. The Selectboard denies any violations took place, and states that the June 23rd votes on FY21 fuel bids were legitimate. However, as many people were talking over each other that evening, and there was noise and confusion that made it difficult to hear the Selectmen’s words, the fuel bid votes will be on the Selectboard’s July 7th agenda for ratification.
Sumner said the Board would also notify Dr. Girelli-Carasi of their response to his complaint by mail, with copies to other citizens who had lodged similar complaints of alleged violations. A copy of that letter will be posted on the Town website for public review. (See link below these meeting minutes.)
Moderator Paul Blais then invited public comment.
Patrick Eck stated that while he did not think anyone was interested in punishing the Town, he questioned the Board’s motivation in not allowing call-in access to meetings during a time when physical connections were undesirable. That creates suspicion in my mind that the motivation was less than good, he said.
Rhonda Ashcraft wanted to know whether the public would see the Stevens and Associates’ summary of their geological survey on the land parcel the Town had anticipated purchasing. Yes, answered Sumner, we will put it on the website. We just received it yesterday.
Bob Teree asked if the Board would be responding to his violation complaint of June 26th. I think we responded to everyone’s complaint, said Sumner. Teree said he hadn’t heard his letter read for the record. Would his complaint be addressed at a separate meeting? No, said Sumner. The law states that you have to reply, said Teree; your lack of reply is a denial of any wrongdoing. Mitch Green said tonight’s meeting was for the express purpose of responding to Dr. Girelli-Carasi’s complaint within the required 10-day time period, and other business would be addressed at future meetings. Conversation got a bit heated for a moment; Blais reiterated that the current meeting had been scheduled to speak to Girelli-Carasi’s complaint to the Board and the Secretary of State. Teree responded that he complained directly to the Board; he does not have to go to the Secretary of State. Blais asked if, in statute, there was a difference between filing a complaint with the Secretary of State and filing one with the Selectboard. Does either method require the same action (10-day response)?, he asked. Green’s opinion was that legally the Board did not need to respond if the complaint was not filed with the Secretary of State. Green said the Board could address the issue at another meeting; they would decide whether to put it on a future agenda. Teree asked to read his letter for the record, and when Green said, “Not tonight,” Teree added it (his letter) was on Facebook. (Transcriber’s note: Some of the confusion in the above debate appeared to stem from the fact that Teree had submitted a violation complaint letter to the Selectboard on an entirely different matter, a fact that might not have been clear to everyone present.)
Linda Lyon came to the microphone to correct a statement she had made in an earlier meeting. At that meeting Lyon had said the Board was legally required to provide electronic access during a physical meeting, but thereafter she realized the law (Act 92) states “the public body should meet electronically,” not “the public body shall meet electronically.” Blais, who had also had further conversation with the Secretary of State’s office, elaborated on that information. Act 92 is referred to as session law, he said. It does not change the original statute, it amends the statute for a certain period of time. (In this case, until the coronavirus emergency period ends.) The temporary open meeting law amendment detailed in Act 92 permits wholly electronic meetings, whereas under the original statute a staffed physical location is required. Lyon said she was not initially opposed to the Town’s plan to purchase land for gravel, it seemed a sensible idea. However, it was handled in a manner that created a breach of trust. Lyon feels that trust needs to be rebuilt, and one way to accomplish that would be to provide remote electronic access to meetings to assure everyone has opportunity to participate safely. She added that the Secretary of State’s office is encouraging public bodies to provide such access even though it is not a legal requirement. Blais advised this subject would be on the next regular meeting agenda.
Marilyn Allen also spoke of a current atmosphere of mistrust which could be alleviated by remote access to meetings. The (June 23rd) meeting was a sham, she added, because there was no sound system and no one could hear.
Bob Teree again attempted to introduce the topic of his violation complaint and the legally correct manner of handling it. Blais reminded those present that comments should be confined to the subject of the present meeting.
Christopher Parkins said that given the nature of the (June 23rd) meeting in question, and the fact that people were concerned about the nature of the land deal, he thought the Board should do everything they could to include as many people as possible. Parkins said he works daily with technology and was surprised that the Board felt remote electronic access meetings do not work. He pointed out that the Town Garage has Internet access. Blais said the subject would be discussed at the next meeting.
Patrick Eck returned again to his question of the Board’s motivation in returning to physical meetings when they had previously held meetings online. There was no motivation, replied Green. The telephone meetings did not work; everyone was talking over everyone, and we weren’t able to get it muted. We could not accomplish the business of the meeting. I tried to voice my opinion and was talked over again and again. Eck disagreed, saying the phone meeting worked just fine for other people.
Linda Lyon, referring to the June 23rd meeting, argued that though the Board defined that gathering as an open air meeting, the indoors or outdoors requirement at that time was 25 people with a space requirement of 200 square feet per person, and she estimated there were 60 people present. She thought it was an indoor meeting even though the bay doors were open.
Sumner made a motion to adjourn. Green seconded the motion, which passed, 2-0. The meeting adjourned at 7:43 p.m.