Silencing Ourselves

I had an email tonight from the person that started the FBIbook site for Brattleboro’s representative town meeting.  It was closed by this person because of fear that use of it violated state open meeting laws.  Now go to every other town in Vermont, none of which have a representative town meeting.   Every citizen in the town is entitled to attend the town meeting and vote. Is someone claiming that citizens of the town cannot discuss their upcoming town meeting over the internet?  Can they discuss them at a coffee shop?

I also see that everyone on the page quotes “someone who said” without ever mentioning who. Was it someone who is generally regarded as authoritative on state law? I also note that not one person quotes the law itself. Did anyone read it? Did anyone call the Secretary of State? I sigh when I see this self-imposed reactive fear. People silencing themselves out of fear of a law that they haven’t even been assured is applicable.  When there is a definitive ruling I will follow my conscience.  Until then I will follow persuasive logic and understanding.  With luck these two will unite.

Comments | 4

  • Guessing

    It is a violation of Open Meeting Law if a representative body holds a meeting that isn’t warned and doesn’t follow all applicable laws. I’d guess that having an “official” RTM page violates this, because it is considered a “meeting” even if it is virtual.

    Each of the individual reps could discuss things on their websites, and everyone could use a local community site like iBrattleboro to talk about town issues – we’ve been doing it and encouraging it for 15 years now.

    The self-proclaimed officialness of the other page, I would guess, is the problem.

    • It's more about the quorum question

      Open Meeting Law states that a QUORUM of any elected public body cannot “meet”, even virtually (meaning via social media or email) to discuss agenda topics. That’s why you’ll never see 3 Selectboard members having lunch and discussing town topics… in fact we avoid even the appearance of this, and try not to even appear together at any one function. If we do, we’re very careful not to discuss town business.

      So even though TMRs’ quorum numbers in the seventies, and it’s unlikely that THAT many will participate in ANY online forum, it’s best not to risk it by debating in any forum where you cannot determine the exact number participating. The same could theoretically be true for iBrattleboro discussions, so the best practice might be for reps to avoid commenting on town business that might come before the body if more than a few reps have already commented.

      There’s very good reasons for Open Meeting Laws, and in time we will be able to more fully navigate the waters of quick-moving social media sites a little better I think, while preserving participation and encouraging public input into important topics.

      • A benefit of not being a Rep

        An issue worth exploring in much more detail….

        Because we have RTM and elect our members, none of them may “gather” to discuss things. But if we didn’t elect them (ie, regular town meeting,) everyone could play online as much as they wanted. Until then, those of us who aren’t elected are free to say what’s on our mind in any forum, no worry. Those who are elected must worry. : )

        Kind of odd that those who most want to participate in town issues are most prevented by RTM, eh? And the rest of us are denied their wisdom.

        Also of note, town employees aren’t elected, so they would be free to participate anywhere.

        As to whether people can write and comment here – if Reps should be cautious here, they should also be cautious with Letters to the Editor and calls to radio programs, too. Those are “forums”, if we are. (And technically, we aren’t a forum…. no forum software running.)

        This also brings up an interesting question – when do we know reps are together and have reached a quorum? I’d bet that many a Gallery Walk or Stroll has “reached quorum” and the street is a public forum. But Reps don’t wear uniforms or carry ID cards. So, in a sense, big public events like this do violate Open Meeting law – just in Brattleboro due to RTM – but they aren’t held to the same standard that we are. No one says reps shouldn’t attend big public events.

        Our view is this site is for news and opinions by local residents on town issues and is best when as many people as possible participate, especially those elected. (I say push the limits, reps, and use this local resource!)

        I hadn’t thought of Open Meeting Law as a reason to ditch RTM before, but I’m adding it to the list. If no one was elected, all could talk freely anywhere.

  • Fascinating question

    In an era of social media and digital communication in general, it’s hard to envision silencing conversation among humans in whatever media are available. People will talk. It’s one of the things humans do best!

    With regard to FB, my only quibble with a group on that platform is that it is only available to FB members. I prefer this kind of discussion, esp if it involves public or elected officials, to take place in the public square, so to speak. On that score, I think iBrattleboro has the edge 😉

    That said, there’s so much that is murky about today’s use of media in politics, our own as well as all the politicos and the commercial media companies who cover them. The president tweeting! Everybody tweeting… What is official communication anyway?

    All ways of saying that it might be time to do the hard thinking and start to update open meeting law. It’s important stuff, and right now, seems like anything can happen.

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