Sen. John Campbell and the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy meet in Campbell's office Thursday.
There's never any shortage of stealth Statehouse meetings in the closing days of the legislative session.
House and Senate negotiators seek out empty rooms in which to settle their differences. Legislative leaders hole up in the governor's ceremonial office to hammer out the budget. But rarely does an entire committee conduct its business behind closed doors.
On Thursday, one did.
As a renewable energy bill neared a final vote in the Senate, all five members of the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy gathered in Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell's (D-Windsor) Statehouse office. They were there to debate a controversial amendment Campbell drafted that would give municipalities greater power to restrict the siting of renewable energy projects.
When a Seven Days reporter attempted to cover the meeting, he was turned away.
"Please, this is not a public meeting," Campbell said.
Asked if a quorum of the panel was present, Campbell said, "It's not a public meeting. No. It's not. Please."
"It's not a quorum of the committee?" Seven Days enquired.
"I'm asking you to close the door," Campbell said. "This is not a public meeting."
Several minutes later, WCAX-TV's Kyle Midura opened the door to the pro tem's office and asked whether the entire committee was present.
"Would you? Please. We're going to have Legislative Council come down in a second," Campbell said, referring to the legislature's attorneys. "Kyle, this is a—"
Shortly thereafter, Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) exited the room, saying, "I'm uncomfortable doing this, especially given your interest."
After the meeting concluded and senators filed through the doorway, Seven Days asked how the meeting went.
"Good," Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) said. "We're going back to committee now."
Seven Days pointed out that he and his colleagues were just in committee, behind closed doors.
"You go talk to [Legislative] Council," Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) said. "It's a private office. Do you guys barge into [House Speaker Shap Smith's] office?"
"This is a private office. You know, this is a private office. This is not a committee room," Campbell said. "Paul, you know, would you — if you quit your 'microphone in the face' type of journalism, which I'd question whether you're a real journalist. I'm telling you: This is a private office for deliberative processes."
Campbell and his assistant, Erika Wolffing, then slammed the door.
A legislative page leaves Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell's office during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
Whether legislative committees are permitted to meet in secret has been a matter of some dispute. According to the Senate's own rules, a committee can go into executive session by a vote of two-thirds of its members only to discuss gubernatorial appointments, legal matters and those that constitute "a clear and imminent peril to the public safety."
"It's kind of a misnomer using that name, 'committee,'" Campbell said of the committee.
For his part, Secretary of State Jim Condos looks to the state's open meeting law, which requires public bodies to properly warn their meetings and permit the public to attend. Though legislators often say they are exempt from the law's mandates, Condos doesn't think that's the case.
"My belief is that the legislature has to follow the open meeting law," he said.
And then there's the Vermont Constitution, which says: "The doors of the House in which the General Assembly of this Commonwealth shall sit, shall be open for the admission of all persons who behave decently, except only when the welfare of the State may require them to be shut."
The constitution does not indicate whether the use of microphones or cameras constitutes indecent behavior.
Later Thursday afternoon, Campbell's staff passed out copies of a memo drafted by Legislative Council deputy director Michael O'Grady, arguing that the public can, in fact, be excluded. The legislature "is not subject to the requirements of the Open Meeting Law," he wrote, and the Senate is free to waive its own rules.
As for that pesky constitution?
O'Grady wrote that while the Statehouse doors must generally remain open, he noted that "the welfare of the State may require them to be shut."
"Under this exception, a quorum of a standing committee may lawfully meet to discuss a bill, without prior notice of the meeting and without opening the meeting to the public," he wrote.
O'Grady did not explain how the welfare of the state was dependent upon the Senate committee debating Campbell's amendment in secret.