Valley News

In Hartford, Minutes Can Take Hours: Selectboard Debate Takes Time From Major Issues

By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer

Hartford — Toward the end of the Selectboard’s last meeting, on May 15, board newcomer F.X. Flinn made a motion asking members to replace the approved April 3 and April 17 minutes with a version that he had edited.

Some of the changes were correcting typos — inserting missing spaces between words, for example, or adding the period after a board member’s middle initial. Others were more involved, such as rewriting sentences in a way that, Flinn would later argue, made them more accurate and provided better context for the reader.

As Flinn began speaking, though, he was interrupted by Selectman Alex DeFelice.

“I’d like to make one statement and then I hope that the board would just vote, instead of discussing it for 45 minutes, if that’s appropriate,” DeFelice said, announcing his opinion that “any Selectboard member should not try to rewrite the minutes, and I will vote against it just in principle.”

Selectboard members didn’t discuss the motion for three-quarters of an hour, as DeFelice had worried, but they came close, clocking in at 34 minutes before Flinn’s motion failed. (Later in the meeting, Flinn’s minor changes to the May 1 meeting minutes were approved.) And that was on top of the half-hour board members spent discussing meeting minutes during their previous gathering on May 1.

If how the meeting minutes are generated seems like a small issue, that’s because it is, board members acknowledge. But it points to a big problem affecting the board since elections in March: The focus on minutiae, caused by a lack of cohesion among board members, stymies efforts to address town business.

“There’s time involved,” Chairman Ken Parker said in a recent interview. “If somebody wants to argue and fight over things, we’ve got other substantive things that can be used for more beneficial ways than (to) argue over some little difference in opinion about the minutes.

“It’s unnerving to have that take 30 to 45 minutes in the course of a meeting.”

He lamented that the board is getting tangled in the weeds when it should be “kicking its feet up” and thinking long-term “pie in the sky” issues, as he called them earlier this month.

The board has yet to create a list of priorities for it to address this year, he said, and topics such as the future of the municipal building and Wendell A. Barwood Arena, two buildings in need of renovation, have yet to be discussed since they were added to the agenda April 17.

Selectman Simon Dennis, who was elected this year after campaigning alongside Flinn and Bethany Fleishman, agreed that the board should be seeking creative solutions to topics larger and more important than minutes. Prioritizing issues to be tackled this year and identifying long-term goals for the town should take precedence, he said.

He suggested the board must develop more unity and trust, noting it’s “very hard for a group to think creatively in a contentious environment.” Body language at recent meetings has ranged from finger-pointing to head-holding, and tempers have flared at times.

At the May 15 meeting, for example, DeFelice proclaimed that he would bring his own version of the minutes at the next meeting because “two can play the same game,” caustically adding that “some of us have a life.”

DeFelice was quieted by Parker, and after a long pause, Flinn deadpanned, “This only took me 30 minutes.”

“I had previously said that the board was ready to put the contentious meeting environment behind us,” Dennis said, “and I think it’s safe to say that, particularly in the last two meetings, that that hasn’t yet happened, which is to say there does (appear) to be some conflict within the board dynamics.

“And is it hurting the town? Yeah,” he said.

Flinn, though, was adamant that discourse among members has “not at all” hindered the board’s progress. Discussion of the minutes did not directly replace talks about the municipal building and Barwood Arena, he said, noting that those subjects didn’t even make it onto the May 15 agenda.

He pointed to the board’s long discussions of renovations to the West Hartford Library and Quechee Bridge as examples of time spent on substantive projects.

In addition to overseeing those projects, Flinn said he felt Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg’s time has been overwhelmed by issues such as navigating the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s processes to clean up townwide damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene last August.

“The amount of attention he is able to give to preparing the board to have discussions about any other matters is pretty limited,” Flinn said. “I for one have been holding back considerably on trying to advance things. I’m not unhappy with the progress that we’ve made, but I also wish that we had an assistant town manager to take some of the burden off of Hunter.”

Rieseberg said that, although the town has been faced with “an extraordinarily heavy workload,” he said he believes “matters before the board are board matters” and don’t affect how the staff tackles projects.

Flinn said it has been “shocking” that what he considered to be beneficial, clarifying changes to the minutes have taken up as much time as they have. Currently, a town office staff member listens to a digital recording in order to produce a draft of the minutes within five days of the meeting. The board then votes to amend or approve those minutes at its next meeting, usually nine days later.

In recent meetings, Flinn has complained about what he called the “poor” quality of the minutes, and has said he simply wanted to improve them.

“I feel they’re not particularly well-written and therefore not accurate,” he said during the May 15 meeting. “It’s as if the person who is listening to the tape types things down, and then they start listening to the conversation, and then they summarize it, so you get these very disjointed paragraphs that begin as if it’s going to be word for word, but then conclude with a summary, and they miss the entire context, they miss the big picture discussion.”

But DeFelice has repeatedly suggested that Flinn’s use of the online collaborative editing tool Google Docs might violate the state’s Open Meeting Law, which Flinn vigorously disputes. (See accompanying story below.)

And in a recent interview, DeFelice accused Flinn of “slanting” the minutes to fit his interests.

“No matter who writes the minutes, they will be slanted in that person’s view, and I like the idea of a third party (such as a staff member) writing the minutes,” said DeFelice, who said discussion of the minutes has “absolutely” been hindering the board’s progress.

“We have never discussed minutes like this. … I do know there’s a lot of people out there that are unsatisfied with what’s going on on the board right now, and it’s our job to pull that back together,” he said.

Both DeFelice and Flinn acknowledged contention between them.

“I think we’re getting better than we have been, but every time we solve one problem, another problem’s created,” said DeFelice, who added that “it’s (Flinn’s) approach that makes the hair on your back stand up.”

“I think I’ve been pretty good with the exception of when he throws the first volley,…” DeFelice said. “I think they’re off-the-cuff remarks that probably both of us should stop and think about before we make them.”

But Flinn said he felt the pair’s relationship had not improved, particularly after the hostile meeting May 15 following an agreeable discussion they had the day prior.

“Alex just wants to find ways to cause trouble for me,” Flinn said of DeFelice’s arguments against editing the minutes, later adding, “His behavior has mystified me since the first moment I came into contact (with him).”
Fleishman did not return a voicemail. Sam Romano could not be reached for comment.

The seventh board member, Sonia O. Knight, has not attended a board meeting since April 3.

Dennis said he felt the board has done well during discussions of the town master plan and the West Hartford Library.

“I’m hopeful that the town can take a charitable and a sympathetic eye to the board as it gets its feet underneath it,” he said. “Obviously everybody is doing the best they can.”

The board meets tonight at 6 at the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction.

SIDEBAR: Minutes Raise Legal Issue

Hartford — While Selectboard members squabble about how long, short, specific or general the minutes should be, they also are debating the processes used to make changes to the minutes — specifically whether they could be violating the state’s Open Meeting Law by using the online application Google Docs.

Selectman F.X. Flinn has used the collaborative editing tool to share copies of the minutes with his fellow board members, who can individually log into their Google accounts to suggest edits to the minutes, and see what suggestions other members have made.

Other members, especially Alex DeFelice, have complained that if a quorum of board members — in Hartford’s case, four of its seven members — use Google Docs, it would constitute an unwarned public meeting and therefore violate the law.

But Flinn has maintained that his proposal is a beneficial tool to streamline the editing process for minutes that he has called poorly written. It falls within the law because members would be suggesting edits to the minutes at different times, he said.

Deputy Secretary of State Brian Leven said there have been no court cases involving Google Docs to definitively address whether the application violates the Open Meeting Law, and the Legislature has “declined to make any amendments to the statutes to get them in sync with technology these days.”

But while he acknowledged he did not know the complete “nuts and bolts” of Google Docs, he said that the description of Flinn’s proposed use of Google Docs by individual board members to edit the same document contains “nothing … that I think flies in the face of the Open Meeting Law.”

However, he said if editing is done in an “interactive” way with a quorum of the board editing at the same time, opponents could “make a stronger case” that that’s a violation.

“If they are using it, I think best practices is using it where … there’s a record of the revisions,” he said.

Still, several members expressed concerns about participating in the collaborative editing program — either because they were worried about wading into unchartered territory in regards to the Open Meeting Law, or because they said they were fed up with using technology for interactions they’d rather perform face to face.

“The (Vermont League of Cities and Towns), I’m told, has considered the issue, and they feel that meeting in that manner may be a problem,” Ken Parker said during the May 1 meeting.

Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg, who is president of the league’s board of directors, has said the league has “some serious and growing concerns” about the use of online media by a quorum of board members.

When the board uses Google Docs, “the public doesn’t get to hear those qualitative arguments about why should the minutes be amended, why should it say that as opposed to this,” Rieseberg said.

Jim Barlow, senior staff attorney at the league, declined to comment for this story because of his advisory role to the board.

DeFelice has said he is overwhelmed by emails by the time he gets home at the end of the day, and Selectman Sam Romano has expressed confusion about the use of Google Docs and would rather discuss edits in front of the public.

While little has been written about the use of Google Docs by municipal boards, the topic of email among board members was addressed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns in June 2000.

If a quorum of board members participate in an email chain, a meeting “may be deemed to have occurred, whether the members had that intention or not,” the League wrote in a June newsletter that year.

Its current handbook, updated in 2006, is even more direct: “If a quorum of board members is conducting a group email discussion about town business, it is very likely that they are violating the open meeting law,” it reads. “The same principle would apply if the board members were talking on the telephone or chatting at the local convenience store.”

Leven, from the Secretary of State’s Office, said municipal boards are not bound by law to approve their meeting minutes, but many have adopted the practice of doing so anyway. He said the intent of the law is to ensure boards act transparently and in a way that is not “excluding the public from the business that the board is doing,” he said.

“But that holds true of anything that they’re doing, if it’s sophisticated technology or if it’s locks on the doors,” he said.