Vermont bill would allow Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hold closed meetings

By SHAUN ROBINSON

VtDigger

Published: 01-15-2024 1:00 AM

Members of Vermont’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission are asking the Legislature for authority to limit public access to their meetings, in part, to ensure the safety of those who testify before the panel about experiencing racism and discrimination in the state.

The new bill, H.649, would exempt some of the commissioners’ deliberations from Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, even if a quorum or more of the panel members are there in person or electronically. 

The House Committee on Government Operations took up the legislation for the first time Tuesday afternoon.

The commission is tasked with studying how racism, discrimination and eugenics have affected Vermont’s laws and suggesting ways the state government could repair those harms. Its work is focused on impacts to Indigenous, French-Canadian and Black people; people of color; and people who have one or more disabilities.

The bill’s proposed exceptions to the Vermont law ensuring access to public meetings drew criticism Tuesday from the Vermont Press Association.

Officials said H.649’s primary purpose is to allow the commission to operate more efficiently. The panel was established in 2022 and had its first public meeting in September; but commissioners have not yet started taking testimony from Vermont residents.

A public body must comply with Vermont’s Open Meeting Law any time a majority of its members, also called a quorum, gathers to discuss its business or to take action. The law generally requires these meetings be warned in advance and that the public is allowed to participate.

But since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has three members — of which two constitute a majority — it is “impossible” for the panel to conduct much of its business without falling under Vermont’s Open Meeting Law requirements, officials said Tuesday.

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Mia Schultz, one of the commissioners, said in an interview that it’s been difficult for her and her colleagues “to have one-on-one conversations” without triggering the standards of an open meeting. She said she would not expect to hold closed sessions regularly.

“Very rarely do I anticipate needing to be able to do that,” she said. “We look forward to a very participatory process — and by that, I mean a process where the public and the people who are impacted are centered, and their truths are finally able to be heard.”

Tucker Anderson, an attorney in the state’s Office of Legislative Counsel, said the bill would create an exception to the Open Meeting Law that allows the panel to conduct “deliberations” — essentially, he said, discussing and weighing evidence from testimony — in a session that is closed to public participation.

The commission could not make decisions in a closed session, he said, and it would be required to livestream its proceedings as well as produce a recording for the public. (A “closed” session is different from an executive session, he noted, which the public could not access at all).

But Lisa Loomis, president of the Vermont Press Association, said she was “deeply concerned” by H.649, calling it “a new effort to make state government less transparent and potentially give special treatment” to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

“The VPA has always opposed adding any new exemptions for closed door/executive sessions to Vermont’s Open Meeting Law,” she wrote in an email. “The Vermont Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs to do all its work and spending of taxpayer money in the open.” 

Loomis, who is also the editor of The Valley Reporter, said the press association was prepared to testify against the bill.

Members of the judiciary committee said that since there are many three-member public bodies in Vermont, any changes to the commission’s privileges could spur a broader conversation about the requirements for similar entities statewide. 

According to the text of the bill, commissioners would be able hold a closed meeting if they find that there are “material threats to the health or safety” of staff, witnesses or invitees. The commission could still allow its staff, counsel and any people who are subjects of the discussion — or whose information is needed — to access the closed meeting. 

Melody Mackin, another panel commissioner, said in an interview the members have already been subjected to threats to safety, including at least one death threat. 

Mackin said existing law already allows the commission to limit public access to its proceedings. The panel can hold executive sessions, and people can elect to testify before its members privately and on a recording that would not get publicly released, she said.

H.649 would also grant commissioners the authority to establish groups of people who have shared life experiences, known as “affinity groups,” that would meet on their own and could inform the panel’s work. 

Meetings of these affinity groups “shall be confidential and privileged,” according to the bill, and members could face civil liability for violating that seal of confidentiality.

The bill also gives the commission 10 additional months to complete its work, meaning it now has a deadline to submit recommendations to lawmakers of April 15, 2027.