South Burlington City Council Chair Helen Riehle admitted that she had violated open meetings law by hitting “reply all” in responding to an email about the city starting a city-run newsletter in response to criticisms of coverage by The Other Paper.
But, she called it a small violation. And she thinks it is the only time she has done it.
“I will assure the public that I will try very hard not to hit the reply all key,” Riehle said at the council meeting on Monday, Nov. 16. “I want to apologize. I understand it is a violation of the public meeting law.”
She said her admission came after an email and phone call she had with Mike Donoghue, South Burlington resident and longtime journalist, who has asserted for several weeks that the city council violated open meetings law in its discussion about dissatisfactions with this newspaper.
In response to its dissatisfaction, the council started an online publication that was initially referred to as a newspaper but is now called a newsletter.
The Vermont open meetings law, 1 V.S.A. § 313, says no public body shall go into a meeting from which the public is excluded without a two-thirds vote of the members. And the reasons that the public body can exclude the rest of the public are limited to specific issues including contracts, personnel issues, pending or probable litigation, real estate negotiations or public safety.
Donoghue, who is part-time executive director of the Vermont Press Association and contributor to The Other Paper and a slew of other publications, has said the email in question became a public discussion when a member of the city council used “reply all” to deliberate as a public body.
Riehle said she needed to listen to a pre-existing training module city attorney Jim Barlow prepared for the city on the open meeting law. She encouraged other councilors and members of city committees to review it also.
Councilor Tim Barritt said, where he works, employees must review business conduct guidelines and other corporate policies every year. He advocated an annual review by councilors of city conduct guidelines.
The Other Paper criticism continues
Riehle said she thought the city newsletter has increased transparency of the city government “so it has all worked out well.”
“And I think The Other Paper has gotten thicker and has more articles that the public wants to read,” said Riehle. “I think, you know, they’re back to performing a little closer to the way they used to report on our city.”
As she has stated throughout, The Other Paper managing editor Jessie Forand said Tuesday, “We have not made any changes. Our papers have maintained their substance, integrity, accountability — and thickness.”
A main argument against The Other Paper was the lack of the Councilor Corner column, which had been temporarily put on hiatus because of COVID-19 and timing around elections.
Riehle wrote a Councilor Corner commentary for November, but when she asked for volunteers for a councilor to write one for December, there weren’t any volunteers.
After some negotiation, councilor David Kauffman agreed to write one for December and Barritt took January.
Problems after dark in parks
Jessica Sankey, who lives next to Red Rocks Park, began the meeting with public comments about her and her neighbor’s concern about recent incidents.
A group of “semi-organized” runners who were part of a running — and, she thinks, drinking — group came through yelling, blowing on whistles and shining lights into homes in the area as she was putting her children to bed.
A neighbor called out to the group that they weren’t supposed to be doing this at night when the park is closed. Some of the runners yelled back that the area was public and they had a right to do it. Sankey said some of them had run through a neighbor’s backyard and jumped over a chain-link fence.
The running group had marked its route with piles of “an undisclosed” white powder. A neighbor’s dog had gotten sick after eating it, she said.
Another incident, she recalled, invovled two men: “There was alcohol involved. And one young man was wielding a machete and had blood all over him,”
Sankey said the issue of the runners had been addressed and Holly Rees, recreation director, had gotten in touch with the group and let them know that they couldn’t be in the park after dark.
Sankey said her neighbor was also concerned about the number of beach fires that have been lit “almost every night.”
Rees said the unknown white powder was flour. She wondered if the machete incident might have been a live-action role play.
She said she has talked to both police and fire departments about the issues and confirmed the park is supposed to be closed at dusk. Fires require a permit.
“There are a number of ordinances I think are being broken right now,” Rees said.
Barritt raised the issue of vandalism in Farrell Park. Rees said she was aware that on a couple of recent weekends benches and trash cans were overturned and rocks were thrown onto paths.
“I didn’t hear of any permanent vandalism. It was more the overturning of things,” said Rees. “We’ll continue to follow it.”