Members of the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board questioned whether some of the practices used by the consultants the board hired to work on community engagement may have violated the state’s Open Meeting Laws.
HUUSD Board chair Christine Sullivan reached out to the board’s attorney, Pietro Lynn, via email, in September about whether consultant Sue McCormack’s use of an online tool that allowed community members, administrators and board members to make anonymous comments which popped up on a screen at the front of the room violated Open Meeting Laws (OML).
This occurred at an August 29 community engagement workshop. While McCormack continued to give her presentation, comments continued to appear on the screen. During the workshop, all participants were urged to log onto website where they could comment on community engagement pros and cons. Members of the community complied, while some used the online tool to chastise the board members in personal attacks on their decision making.
Board members were able to see a “slew of negativity” as Duxbury representative Torrey Smith put it at the last community outreach workshop held at the Waterbury municipal offices on September 26. Comments that were critical of the board and the process were made at the August 29 workshop, but the process was changed so that only demographic data could be collected anonymously during the September 26 workshop.
“I expressed to Brigid (Nease) that I did not believe that gathering anonymous comments about the district from board members, staff and members of the community in the context of a public meeting was consistent with the law. The OML requires that all persons present know what comments are being made and who is making them. The OML contemplates that the public will be able to respond to board statements and other community member communications at a meeting. That did not happen here. Typically, confidential surveys are conducted outside of public meetings. Then, the results are presented at the public meeting for consideration. I do not expect that a Vermont court would ever permit people, especially board members, to submit substantive comments on district matters to be read at a meeting without some form of attribution. The public has the right to know the statements made by its elected officials at public meetings,’ Lynn wrote in response to Sullivan’s email.
He also suggested that the board consider whether McCormack’s contract should be cancelled. Compliance with Open Meeting Laws is listed as the first of the consultant responsibilities in the consultant’s contract.
As The Valley Reporter goes to press on October 10, “curing” this issue of the OML violation will be discussed by the board.