Vermont Senate to Change Remote Meeting Policy After More Glitches | Off Message

Vermont Senate to Change Remote Meeting Policy After More Glitches

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An image displayed of a failed upload of a Senate Committee on Natural Resources meeting - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • An image displayed of a failed upload of a Senate Committee on Natural Resources meeting
In a letter to the leaders of the Vermont House and Senate on Monday, Vermont Press Association president Lisa Loomis complained that legislative live-streams were malfunctioning, making committee meetings unavailable to the public. It wasn't the first time, she noted.

"This is like the taxpayers and press being locked out of City Hall for a public meeting," wrote Loomis, who is also editor and co-owner of Waitsfield's Valley Reporter.

The next day, it happened again.



Now, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) is promising that the Senate will adopt a policy established a month ago by the House barring committees from conducting business when they encounter technical difficulties. "If the streaming isn't working, we'll stop," he pledged. "I'll be telling all the chairs that if it happens again, they should stop officially meeting."

Like many public bodies, the Vermont legislature has struggled to adapt to the remote meeting world created by the coronavirus pandemic. In April, Ashe apologized after senators veered into a public policy discussion before making a caucus stream live. In May, a technical glitch prevented committees from broadcasting their meetings, prompting the House to cancel them until the problem was resolved; the Senate continued to carry out its business.

On Monday, the legislature again "experienced intermittent and inconsistent issues live-streaming some committee meetings hosted on Zoom," according to Kevin Moore, the legislature's director of information technology.

Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) instructed the only House panel scheduled to meet that day, the House Appropriations Committee, to stand down until the the stream was available again, she wrote in a response to Loomis. "I absolutely hear your concerns about the public and media being able to access the legislature's meetings during this time," Johnson told Loomis.

It appears that some Senate panels, including the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, continued meeting and uploaded video of the session later. The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, which has faced criticism in recent days for its remote meeting practices, attempted to convene in the afternoon but encountered difficulties, according to its chair, Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison). He said that no business was conducted.

On Tuesday, a meeting of the Senate's committee chairs was scheduled to be broadcast live, but Ashe's chief of staff, Peter Sterling, failed to stream or record it, Ashe and Sterling said. No records of the meeting exist, though Ashe characterized it as "mostly organizational."

In her letter to Ashe and Johnson, Loomis acknowledged that the technical difficulties were "a pain" for legislators. But, she continued, "It is a much bigger problem for the public, as taxpayers and members of the press are being shut out as major and important decisions about Vermont’s future and potential recovery in the wake of COVID-19 are on the table this week in your rush to adjournment."

Kevin McCallum contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.