by Nat Frothingham
MONTPELIER — City Clerk John Odum has requested an investigation by the Attorney General’s office into the nonrenewal of City Manager William Fraser’s contract as made public recently. It seems that what has been called into question is the procedure by which the decision was reached and the manner in which Fraser was informed. Mayor John Hollar informed Fraser on Oct. 24 that a majority of the board did not support renewing his contract. The full board did not meet until Oct. 26, and at that time, three of the seven board members said they did not know a decision had been reached. The Bridge’s publisher Nat Frothingham spoke with Odum recently in a question and answer session.
Frothingham: You have written a letter to the State of Vermont Attorney General calling for an investigation into whether or not Mayor John Hollar, by actions he took in advance of the Wednesday, Nov. 9 City Council meeting, may have violated Vermont’s open meeting law. What evidence do you have to call for such an investigation? If you don’t have evidence to back up your call, why are you calling for an investigation?
Odum: Your question misses the whole point. I am neither equipped nor qualified to collect evidence. If I were, I wouldn’t have written the letter, I’d just investigate it myself.
I have concerns, I’ve heard the concerns of some of the city councilors (for whom I act as secretary), and there are literally dozens of concerns and complaints and rumors I’ve heard every day from my constituents. I shared that experience with attorneys at the Secretary of State and I was directed to the Attorney General’s as being the proper authority to ask to intervene and provide clarity so we can all move on from this. It’s simply a matter of following proper procedure.
Frothingham: Based on what you have witnessed, do you feel there has been a possible violation of Vermont’s open meeting law or a violation of the spirit of that law?
Odum: Two parts to that answer. First, my personal gut feeling is that there probably wasn’t a violation by a single call or meeting with all four present. The conference call I’ve heard about probably had only three participants. There’s an amazing amount of mistrust out there, though, so I didn’t think my gut feeling was going to be enough to placate a lot of folks. Nor should it be, necessarily — I’m just one guy. One reason to ask for an investigation is to get the ironclad clarity that we clearly need after that last Council meeting. That was a tough meeting. And I may be a paper-pusher, but I’m an elected paper-pusher; those people voicing concerns are my constituents, and I am honor bound to take those concerns seriously. If I’m not willing or able to do that, I should get a new job.
The second part is more important though. I don’t think there’s any serious question that the spirit of the law was violated. Obviously it was. An attorney I spoke with at the Secretary of State’s office says that a strict reading of the law would make the series of communications between the council majority to come to a decision a violation as well. That same attorney also added that, despite that reading, a judge may or may not see it that way if the issue were in a court of law. But the Secretary of State does feel strongly enough on the matter that they advise public bodies not to make decisions this way, because of the potential of a violation.
So we’re squarely in a place where the Secretary of State advises a violation may have taken place under a strict reading … but maybe not. That’s hardly reassuring to folks with concerns both on and off the Council. So logically, the only way we’re going to get any closure is through the Attorney General’s office. And if they choose not to investigate and give us that clarity, I think this is a wound that isn’t likely to heal.
It doesn’t help that there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in understanding the parameters of the law from the mayor and majority. The mayor had to be told again very recently that he couldn’t simply call a council meeting with an attorney this week without warning that meeting publicly at least 24 hours in advance. You’d think, in the midst of this controversy, he would have familiarized himself with the legal procedures for holding a public meeting. That sort of oversight does not inspire confidence under the circumstances.
Frothingham: What is motivating you to seek the involvement of Vermont’s Attorney General’s office for an investigation of the public’s current concerns about possible violations of Vermont’s Open Meeting law?
Odum: My conscience and the oath of office I took.