BENNINGTON >> A group of Bennington residents has submitted an official complaint to the Mount Anthony Union board regarding their allegedly illegal use of executive session, and is planning to file it in Superior Court.
The formal complaint, written by Mary Gerisch on behalf of a group of concerned citizens, lays out five allegations of misconduct against the board, specifically violations of Vermont's Open Meetings Act. According to Gerisch, the letter was submitted to MAU board chairman Tim Holbrook on Feb. 29. The letter requested a written and public response from the board within seven business days, but there has been no response. She said she is looking for other citizens to co-sign to complaint, and she plans to submit it next week.
The first alleged violation involves the board improperly entering into executive session. "Executive Sessions are not moved properly in the open meeting venue. Rather, the meeting is called to order in a separate room from that in which the public meeting is held, and then the motion is made to go into executive session. This procedure violates both the letter and the spirit of the Open Meetings Act," the complaint reads. This is alleged to have occurred at the April 2015 meeting of the board, and on occasions since. Gerisch suggests that henceforth, the meeting should be opened in the warned meeting location, and the board should vote to enter executive session at that location, before leaving the room for the executive session.
The complaint also alleges that in April of 2015, the board held a meeting on a day other than their typical day, the third Thursday of the month. The meeting was instead held on April 7, and was not warned as a special meeting, as the law requires. The complaint says that this, "resulting in some board members and many members of the public not being able to attend." It also says that the "meeting agenda did not accurately reflect matters to be voted upon, describing an "update" as to the Principal search, not a hiring of a Principal."
The third alleged violation is in regards to then Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union board member Larry Johnson being allowed into the April 7 executive session, at which the hiring of the MAU principal was discussed. Under open meeting law, the board, at its discretion, can invite non-board members into executive session, but the law also states, "A motion to go into executive session should state whether individuals other than the members of the public body will attend the session." The complaint points out that no statement about Johnson being present, or why the board felt his presence necessary, was made prior to the executive session. Persons present in the executive session have said that Johnson did not say anything during the session. "The person included in the executive session was not staff, clerical assistant legal counsel nor a person under discussion or whose information was needed," reads the complaint.
The fourth point expands on allegations regarding the agenda, where it was not made clear that a principal would be hired. "At the meeting of April 7th," the complaint reads, "the agenda specified that there would be an update on the status of the search for the new Principal at agenda item #8 and contained in the Chair's report. At the commencement of the meeting prior to the motion for Executive Session, the Agenda was modified out of the hearing of the public and unknown to those members who were not present at that time. At the prior meeting, as reflected by those minutes, the Superintendent had stated that he would try to have the interviews completed by the April 7th meeting, but would allow time for questions and discussions before hiring. There was no time for questions and discussions by the public prior to the Executive Session and the public was not notified per the agenda that a hiring would take place at the April 7 meeting."
The final allegation regards five stipended positions in the principal's office, which the complaint says were created in executive session on October 5, 2015, without the opportunity for the public to have input in the decision. "Section 313 of the Open Meeting Act allows Executive Session for personnel matters due to their personal nature, but not the creation of five new positions, which is solely a financial decision and impacts public funds. It's therefore not appropriate for consideration in Executive Session," reads the complaint.
In the "penalty" portion of the Open Meeting Law, it states that, "A person who knowingly and intentionally violates the Open Meeting Law may be guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine up to $500." It also says that suit must be filed in Superior Court within one year of the alleged violation. The next meeting of the MAU board is Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the library at MAU Middle School.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.