Planning Commission deliberates privately

Open Meeting Law violations subject of discussion

By Tom Benton

Staff Writer

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The Facts

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SWANTON — The Swanton Planning Commission takes their new vow of transparency seriously.

That was about all they offered the public at a special meeting Wednesday night, where they planned a written response to allegations that the commission violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

The Planning Commission spent the duration of the meeting, more than an hour, in executive session, conferring with the town’s lawyer, Ed Adrian, about a response to allegations put forth by Anthony Iarrapino.

Iarrapino, an attorney for the Swanton Wind Project, filed a complaint with the town July 18.

The complaint stemmed from a public records request filed by Iarrapino on behalf of the wind project’s developers, Travis and Ashley Belisle. The records revealed three of the commissioners had deliberated new provisions in the municipal energy plan via email.

The state’s Open Meeting Law requires any deliberation or discussion of municipal business be conducted at a duly warned public meeting, and that the majority of any municipal body not discuss such business outside of such a meeting. The law specifically states that no three members of a five-person commission may participate in any private discussion of municipal business.

Although the majority of last night’s meeting remained private, the commission and Town Administrator David Jescavage went out of their way to ensure anyone listening knew they were abiding by the legal guidelines.

The commission’s chair, Jim Hubbard, clarified that the executive session was necessary because “premature disclosure of the matters discussed might put the town at a substantial disadvantage” — that statement is necessary for governing bodies to enter executive session.

Similarly, Jescavage noted that the closed-door conversation was “covered under attorney-client privilege.” He told the few public attendees of the meeting that a “Public Records Request” section will be added to the town’s website, containing the relevant emails, the Belisles’ complaint letter and eventually the commission’s response.

Hubbard did not provide a timeline for the completion or publication of the response letter.

The Open Meeting Law requires formal acknowledgement or denial of any alleged violation within seven days of a complaint. The commission’s July 20 meeting, during which Hubbard repeatedly apologized yet denied any illegal activity on the commission’s part, would seem to fulfill that requirement. Iarrapino, who attended the meeting, said his clients would deliberate as to whether that response was sufficient.

According to the law, if a violation is publicly acknowledged, those responsible are given a 14-day window to hold a public meeting ratifying, or declaring void, any of the actions in question. If those responsible fail to do so to the satisfaction of the complainant, or have denied the violation(s), the complainant may press charges in civil court. Public meeting violations move to the top of the civil court docket.

Sitting outside the conference room last night, one resident mused, “I can’t believe [the Belisles] would sue the town.” That remains to be seen.

The Planning Commission’s next meeting, for which they are seeking pro-wind development material to balance information received from opponents, will be held Aug. 17.