Vermont House Committee Plans Rare Closed-Door Meeting | Off Message

Vermont House Committee Plans Rare Closed-Door Meeting


The House Energy & Technology Committee plans to close its door to the public Wednesday morning. - TAYLOR DOBBS
  • Taylor Dobbs
  • The House Energy & Technology Committee plans to close its door to the public Wednesday morning.
In the middle of Sunshine Week — an annual celebration of government transparency — a Vermont House committee is closing its doors to the public in order to hear from state officials about cybersecurity in state government.

Rep. Tim Briglin (D-Thetford), the chair of the House Energy and Technology Committee, said Tuesday that his panel plans to go into a rare executive session on Wednesday morning in order to protect the government’s information technology systems.

According to the committee’s schedule, the closed meeting will include testimony from Agency of Digital Services Secretary John Quinn and the agency’s chief information security officer, Nicholas Andersen.

“It’s simply checking in with the Agency of Digital Services on cybersecurity issues,” Briglin said. “My understanding is that it’s traditional to do that behind closed doors, simply because there’s some people that you don’t want to hear what your state’s cybersecurity strategy is.”

Briglin said the hearing wasn’t precipitated by any specific incident or breach but is an “information session.”

The Vermont Constitution suggests that, in most cases, legislative meetings are open to the public. "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,” it reads, “except only when the welfare of the State may require them to be shut.”

Vermont's Open Meeting Law puts specific limitations on the situations in which public officials can close an otherwise public meeting. Though legislators have, at times, argued that they are exempt from that law, Secretary of State Jim Condos has said that's not the case.

Statehouse committee hearings are rarely closed, but it's happened before. According to state records, the Legislative Information Technology Committee held an executive session March 22, 2018.

Briglin provided Seven Days with a legal memo, written by legislative lawyer Maria Royle, that explains the legal justification for closing the meeting.

Royle argues that “committees, councils, working groups, etc. comprised entirely of legislators” are exempt from Vermont’s open meeting law, though she does not point to specific language in the Constitution or state law to support that claim.

According to the memo, a legislative committee may close its doors to the public “by the affirmative vote of a majority of its members.” It must publicly explain what topics are planned for discussion in the executive session — network contracts and data security, in this case — and then hold a vote.

If a majority of the committee agrees to close the meeting, Royle writes, lawmakers may continue in private as long as they restrict their discussion to the stated topics.

Jay Diaz, a staff attorney for the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in an email to Seven Days that the steps outlined in the memo “appear to generally follow the Open Meeting Law’s parameters,” even though Royle denies that lawmakers are required to follow the law.

Read the memo below: