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Minutes May 29, 2008

Minutes of Open Government Committee

Meeting of May 29, 2008

7:00 PM
Firehouse Gallery Center for the Visual Arts


Members Present: R. Haesler, M. Bozik, G. Crawford, D. Mindich, W. Sawyer, D. Lane, J. Royer, S. Mcintyre, J. Shannon.
Members Absent: T. Ashe
Meeting opened at 7:14 PM by Beth Truzansky, a facilitator from CEDO. Beth outlined some speaking rules and described the agenda for the public comment and timeline.
The Mayor reviewed the process of how City Councilor Kurt Wright and he were directed by resolution of the City Council to appoint this ad hoc committee to report back to the City Council with recommendations on how to increase transparency in City government. Specifically, how the City delivers on its commitment to open government. It will include review of the public meeting law, privacy law, and the City’s commitment to information technology. Certainly the discussions will contain conversations regarding development.
Each member was asked to introduce themselves and provide a few thoughts on open government.
Richard Haesler – Asst. City Attorney, new to the office, long history of public defense, coincides with his interest in local government. He does not see any conflict with his job responsibilities and sitting on this committee, as he believes open government is a tenet of what he does.
Chip Sawyer – Senior Outreach Professional from the University of Vermont Center for Rural Studies, also MPA student at UVM, was asked to sit on the committee by the director of the MPA program. Chip has worked on local land use issues in the past. He is hoping to get some ideas for the City to and about diverse and equitable ways to inform the public that are effective and efficient. These ideas need to be sustainable.
Magaret Bozik – works in CEDO for 10 years. One of her responsibilities is to run the CDBG program, an allocation process weighted very heavily with public process. She has always strived for and encouraged equitable engagement.
David Mindich – Professor of Communications and Journalism at St. Michael’s College. Worked in the news business for CNN. While at St. Mike’s, has worked on several open government issues. Long been an advocate for the sense and reality that government is accountable to the people and that we take ownership of government. Quoted from the Vermont Constitution (Chapter 1, Article 6), “that all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people; therefore all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants and all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.”
Joan Shannon – City Councilor from Ward 5. To get feed back from the people. Feels the City makes a good effort to inform the public. Still receives feedback that the effort is inadequate. Looking to acquire feedback to improve the processes and hopefully make more efficient use of the resources. Looking for a list of action items to begin working on.
Damon Lane – Research Engineer at the University of Vermont, one of the randomly selected citizens on the committee. Interesting that the selection process for the citizens was not public. Looks forward to speaking to community members to see that they are heard.
Steve Mcintyre – Self employed web developer, one of the random citizens selected to the committee, recent candidate for City Council in Ward 7. Open government was one of his main platforms as a candidate.
Jeff Crawford – State Judge in the Costello Building. Works in an open process.
Jeff Royer – works in Montpelier for the National Life Group. Relocated here about a year and one half ago. Originally, from a town in PA that was run by a ‘good ole boys network’ government and was very closed. Sitting on this committee was appealing.
Ben Pacy – Staffing the committee for the Chief Administrative Officer.
Beth T. – Ben is taking notes and there is a recorder on the table. Let’s move to public comment, please try and keep comment to three minutes. Please introduce yourself.

Bill Stuono – Thank you for all being on the committee with impressive qualifications. Open government as a general rule. People confuse open government with process. Many of the problems are process issues. If you do not have good process it creates antagonist relationships. Good process makes everyone work together on the same page to a common goal. Without good process you will always have people that take advantage of the situation. Good process is the number one goal. Long list where the city needs improvement:
Development Notices, applicants can submit new plans the day of the DRB which no one has seen before and yet they are expected to give public testimony. That is a paramount issue of bad process. Nobody can be expected to comment on plans they have not seen before.
Board Appt. – we are not doing a good job of recruiting people for the membership to our boards. If people knew about the openings and the city actively sought qualified members we would get a better cross representation of the community.
People would like to know all the projects that CEDO is working on from inception to completion, like to see all on a web page.
The city web pages containing meeting agendas are not kept up to date. Rooms change, meetings are canceled, common frustration.
There is conversation about executive session at Council meetings. That many items are in executive session that do not need to be. As well as I have heard of back room deals. Is trying to be as open as possible, this is a really good format. We are only giving 3 minutes to speak. There is no opportunity to interact.
Barbara McGrew – downtown resident. In a way this should not be necessary. After 30 years of Progressive rule things become entrenched. Glad for opportunity to reflect.
All meetings announced in Free Press and City Web site posted as early as possible at least one week in advance. Time and place to remain accurate. Agendas of all meetings, accurate minutes taken and approved. Interested party concept should be defined broadly. Just because you live far away does not mean you are not interested. Many parties are not only self interested but civic minded, don’t make that assumption. Web site should have a proposed development project page so people are not surprised by approval of a project. Neighbors of a proposed development project should be notified by mail. Limited use of executive session, some times the city has the right to do this that are legal. Forget about on the record review, that would have a chilling effect on local government. Is swearing in people really necessary? Equal time for the public at meetings. At CC meetings in particular developers are called back to testify, which becomes a lobbying session for their project, where as the public has no opportunity to speak. Issues of high interest find themselves last on the agenda late at night. Those issues should be put first.
Council members and board members should listen appropriately, use communication skills.
Roger Cole – lives in the downtown area- make 2 points. The city has and events and meetings web site. It is lousy and uninformative. Information comes late. Referenced the Design Meeting with the Harvard Students not advertised on web site. Second thing, attended a lot of meetings, listened for many years. He has impression that people on the City Council are going through the public forum as a matter of routine. Believes very unresponsive, not listening.
Margaret Gunderson – lives in the new north end and is a DPW commissioner. Project Development. Flynn estate project – taxes were not paid. Project was allowed to move forward. Developer owed $94k. Developers should not be given a break. Developer decided to farm, this had large impact on the neighborhood and lake. Continued to hear “this is a really good developer”. Community had to raise $15k is not very happy about that. Still no steps taken by the City. On the record review does not work. Does not allow the legal process to work. Does not allow the citizens to review or have their experts review. Hearing notification time is an issue, there is not enough time between hearings. Citizens have a right to respond. We should be working towards common unity that we have together.
David Porteous – Ward 6 – Change terms of City Councilors to 3 years from two years. Need more time to get acclimated to the position so they are not recampaigning. Commissions – web site – listed under boards and commissions. Update organization of the website. Cannot download application for commissions, should be able to do that. Consent agenda. What is this all about. A lot of content and passed by city council people missing out on information. Looks like the retirement stuff was contained in consent agendas, perhaps if this was on the website that would not have happened. Website address can we shorten to btv.gov??? something simpler. This meeting, did not know that there were four more meetings, is there anything on the website? If there were four more, perhaps come to a different meeting. Tent cards to identify committee members.
Elisa Nelson – Ward 5 – Process with open government is what I am hoping to fix. Any web site and the announcement in the paper should answer 6 questions, who, what, why, when, where, and how. What is happening, who is discussing it and how can a citizen get involved in it. Frequently, a citizen gets involved when they have a problem. They have to figure everything out. They may not know how to get in front of the DRB. No way of getting into the process until it is too late. Maybe some sort of manual, step by step, how this meeting will occur. Speaking at council meeting example, how do you do that. What is the agenda, public has no idea what the content is. I am an inspector of elections. Whole thing about the recount, had no idea about. Was not identified clearly on the agenda. Agendas need to be linked so you can click and read. Unreasonable to expect citizens to leave work to read a resolution prior to the meeting by going to City Hall. Developments – neighbors and more than the abutters need to be notified. It is in your neighborhood. Perhaps a diameter method could be used. Feel a disconnect if something occurred that you had no knowledge about.
Alan Sousie – Steering Comm. Wards 4 and 7, Chairman of the Board of Health. Structure of the meeting is critical to the content of the meeting. This structure is lousy. How can we improve upon this to connect with other people. Every meeting has this sense of formality like a wall. Will provide a better sense of community. This meeting set up with this barrier in the middle. Wall between receivers and deliverers. Even Council meeting with that table. Have the U shape more open, more inviting.
Meg Stanley – Ward 3- relayed a recent frustrating process around the garden on Myrtle St. Trying to locate appropriate people in the CLP program (trying to locate the right people to answer her questions). Concerned about how the decision process for how these funds works. Concerned how these funds get shared between wards. Understands it is a new program. Many staff not speaking freely, perhaps do to the fact they report to someone else. Spent a lot of time in planning and zoning office, she got a lot of ”I don’t knows”, they should be the experts. I would like to get more clarity on this issue. Process is important, want to be a part of that, a community partner. Feels like she is jumping up and down to convey that. Was told staff to busy to email a copy of the resolution when requested. Asked to be included. It should not be this difficult.
Art Demarais – Ward 3 - Commission minutes should be posted on website. Commission content, people get the feeling there is an elite sub-culture on the commissions. Every seat should be open all the time. Was told new commissioners were a problem because they ask too many questions. Long tenured commissioners were better since they did not require training. Process – established internally – by Mayor or depts. has problems. i.e. Task forces have no access for citizens. You should be able to call one person and get a question answered about every active process in the City without continual banging on the doors. Should not be a problem. This is a good start. Agreed with land CLP process described by Maggie Stanley.
Linda Clark Sousie – Interested in increased transparency in government. About time this took place. The previous Mayor left a colossal mess. Nobody warned us about this mess. Described a problem with an election referencing absentee ballots sent out without apparent authorization. Rationale was about questioning the directive of a city councilor.
Michael Rooney - Ward 6 NPA steering committee – Perhaps the committee needs a change of name. People do not believe the city is closed. City councilors are not paid enough except for the joy of public service. City administration at all levels not paid enough. Voters scream and yell because they are surprised. Something happens they are not aware of. They believe the institutions are out to get them. We make everyone aware of things before they happen. This could include the web site, list serves. This meeting was not on the web page until yesterday. This is scandalous. We should have a rule on the website in x amount of time. There should not be referred to a point of contact, the website should contain the information and do not send us to a law firm, perhaps to an employee.
Dan Fivel – Ward 3 - Need to examine how boards are chosen. The DRB why are there not more architects and fewer lawyers and why are there people with direct contact with the developers? Examine how a board like that is appt., it serves the purpose of the developer. This is infuriating to the public.
Roger Cole – Interested people who have a vested interest are not limited to the immediate abutters. Downtown residents are interested in what happens in the whole downtown. In the matter of Champlain College development of the Eagles property has happened extremely fast. Information should have been available for review in a reasonable way. Giving the public the time to say what they want to say. Public not listened to. Need to consider ramifications of what happens downtown, need time to review.
Elisa Nelson – Public meeting requires a warning, an agenda 10 days out. This is not happening. Currently, not happening, no agendas, enforce public meeting rule. Public comments in advance on the topic. Comments can be blind as content changes as closer to the meeting date. P and Z rewrite only had 4 sec per page to read and comment. Unreasonable. Public should have more time to comment on larger projects and items.
Bill Stuono - echoed sentiments of meeting structure. People do not have input or interaction in the public comment section of the meetings. Highlighted the success of police chief selection meetings. Nothing more frustrating than no interaction, being unable to air questions. Notices to abutting to property owners, why can’t neighbors be notified immediately, why doesn’t this happen. Bad process, city employee morale declining. Hard to do a good job with a difficult process. Explained the difficulty with trying to figure out what is going on in the city. Perhaps the creation of communications department.
Michael Rooney – Part of a group that essentially created a resolution asking DPW to be transparent. Perhaps that would be helpful to this group. City Council packets infrequently available on the website. Technology allows for easy ways to get this information out there.
Dan Fivel – group called Citizens for Liveable Cities who advocate open government and there is s website liveableburlington.org, may find what is on this site interesting as this group is pushing for open government.
Margaret Gunderson – Had tremendous notice about this meeting due to Steve Mcintyre letting her know. Took facilitative leadership courses through city. Training on how to engage public and make meetings more friendly. She encouraged DPW to have all employees take this course. She also asked the DPW commission to improve website, put more information on the website. She asked to earmark funds for this. Should be more women and minorities on this committee.
Mayor Kiss – The structure of the meetings will be facilitated by the two City Councilors and then the two staff members. Next meeting the committee will hear from the City Attorney, HR Director, IT Director about open government laws, meeting laws, personnel practices, and capabilities. The committee will need to select a time and set an agenda for this meeting.
Beth Truzansky – comments can be sent to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .
Mayor Kiss – had proposed at the end of this, to the extent a report is provided, the City would support looking at recommendations that result from unanimous agreement, majority vote, or consensus. The majority vote option would allow for the opportunity for dissenting opinions.
General discussion about whether the Committee should release draft recommendations and then get input from the public about it.
David Mindich – wanted to be sure the current situation was to be reported on with respect to open government. Additionally wanted to have an overview of boards and commissions specifically regarding their roles and responsibilities and how that is organizationally structured.
Steve Mcintyre – inquired about the scope of the recommendation.
Mayor Kiss – thought the July 1 date was very ambitious and felt extensions were appropriate if completed by 8/31.
Kurt Wright – thanked everyone and thought this was a good opportunity to look at our government and improve its openness.
This meeting will be broadcast on Channel 17 and streaming on the web on their website www.cctv.org in about a week.
Next Meeting will be June 18th from 7 pm to 9 pm at 645 Pine Street, in the large conference room.
Minutes taken and written by Ben Pacy.
 

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