In response to a complaint filed by Seven Days last week, Burlington city councilors on Monday acknowledged that they violated the state's open meeting law by inviting protest organizers into an executive session to discuss police personnel.
Councilors voted 9-3 to find themselves at fault, though they'll await guidance from the city attorney on what next steps to take. Councilors Jack Hanson (P-East District), Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) and Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) voted no.
The paper argued that while the law allows people "whose information is needed" to join closed-door sessions, the protesters didn't demonstrate that they had confidential information about three cops who've been accused of excessive force.
"In hindsight, most reasonable people would look at what we heard and not feel like that was the kind of information that falls under that kind of privilege and that should be kept from the public," said Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District), who voted against the executive session last week. "It should be no shame on this body to admit wrong."
The paper would have had the option to take the matter to court if councilors had decided no violation had occurred. The council now has 14 days to decide how to right the wrong.
Councilors called the special meeting for September 8 in response to protesters' demands that the city fire Sgt. Jason Bellavance and officers Cory Campbell and Joseph Corrow. Demonstrators have vowed to camp out in Battery Park until the city abides, but officials have said they can't remove the officers without facing serious and expensive legal consequences.
Hanson, who originally invited the protesters behind closed doors, had argued that their viewpoints would be valuable to the council's private deliberations. The protesters, who didn't identify themselves with their full names, agreed that sharing their comments would "be best done in a private dialogue." The council agreed to split the executive session into two parts: One with the organizers and the other to hear legal advice from City Attorney Eileen Blackwood.
Councilors Shannon, Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) and Franklin Paulino (D-North District) voted against letting the protesters behind closed doors and against entering the executive session. Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) voted against letting the protesters behind closed doors but ultimately voted in favor, along with eight other councilors, of going into executive session.
On Monday, councilors had initially planned to discuss the allegations in executive session, but council Democrats — many of whom voted against entering the closed meeting last week — argued that the topic should be debated in public. They discussed the merits of Seven Days' complaint for more than an hour.
Mason, an attorney, said that the law isn't black and white but that the council should "err on the side of being overly cautious" and deliberate in public. Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) agreed, saying Mason had convinced him that "we need to essentially acknowledge the mistake.
"In the end, the most important thing here is to maintain the trust of the public," Pine continued. "This is just one of those instances where I believe our job is to hold ourselves to a very high standard."
Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) originally sided with Hanson last week. But on Monday, Freeman said the council's ability to craft policy is an "incredible power" and that public bodies should avoid closed-door sessions.
The council's vote contradicted Blackwood's legal advice. The city attorney said there is little case law on the matter but that statute generally gives public bodies the discretion to invite members of the public into closed sessions.
"It would be important for us to defend that there is no violation because [the] city council should have the right to decide: Does it want to invite certain people in because they think that group has information?" Blackwood said. "I don't think it then translates to it's a violation if it turns out that ... you didn't need that information."
Hanson agreed, saying that councilors made the best decision they could at the time. He said the council should improve transparency going forward but "that doesn't mean that I think we violated the law."
Councilor Paul said she saw both sides of the issue but agreed that the council should be more transparent.
"Whether you voted yes or no to go into executive session, the reality is we all did," she said. "I am inclined to vote yes and feel that we should just try in the future to just do better. That's really all we can do, is to just do better and hold each of us as accountable as we can."
The council is now bound by the open meeting law to adopt "specific measures that actually prevent future violations." Seven Days, however, has requested additional remedies.
The paper asked the council to release the names and affiliations of every person who attended the session, as well as topics of discussion and how the protesters' testimony would have disadvantaged the city in deliberating about the officers' conduct. The paper also sought any records produced during the session and demanded that councilors participate in a training on the state's open meeting laws.
Some councilors suggested offering the remedies that the paper sought, without admitting to a violation of the law, but Mason cautioned that would still leave the door open to a lawsuit.
The council agreed to discuss its offer at its next meeting on September 21.