by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — During a regular city council meeting Nov. 9 at City Hall, roughly 20 residents took turns speaking out following reports in numerous news outlets concerning City Manager William Fraser’s contract nonrenewal.
Most citizens who spoke praised Fraser and criticized a process whereby a majority of the city council, led by Mayor John Hollar, informed City Manager Bill Fraser on Oct. 26 in an executive session that they did not intend to support the renewal of his contract in March. That meeting followed a private meeting between Hollar and Fraser on Oct. 24 in which Hollar informed Fraser that he believed a majority of councilors would not support the continuation of his contract.
At the core of the controversy is the fact that the majority of members knew about Hollar’s discussion with Fraser, while three did not. Hollar is the seventh member of the seven-member council. The three who were not in the loop claim they did not know about Hollar’s discussion with Fraser until they were informed in the executive session. Hollar served as a tie breaker, siding with the three councilors who do not want to renew Fraser’s contract against three who do want to renew Fraser’s contract.
Called into question by the public has been whether this creation of an unofficial decision by four members of the council — and informing the city manager of said unofficial decision outside a regularly warned council meeting — breaks Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.
Hollar spoke by telephone with The Bridge Nov. 11.
“There was never a meeting of the majority of the council prior to this discussion with Bill. Three councilors came to me at separate times and told me that they did not support the renewal of his contract. I told Bill that there had been no final decision because the council had not yet met, but I felt it was important to give him a heads up about what was certain to be a difficult discussion,” Hollar explained. He also said, “I did not make a concerted effort to make this decision prior to my meeting with Bill on Oct. 24.”
Officially, there has still been no decision. The council has not met and voted in a publicly warned meeting on the matter, Hollar said. However, repeated questions from the public have led City Clerk John Odum to request an investigation from the Attorney General’s office.
“I have no objection to someone from the Attorney General’s office looking at this and making a determination,” Hollar said.
As for whether this incident may lead to a pricey legal issue, Hollar says, “No.”
“If we go forward with this, we would have to have a hearing and we would have to state our reasons … that poses a challenge in terms of the general practice of not having public discussions about personnel matters, and my desire not to have a public debate about the manager’s performance,” Hollar said. Hollar hopes to stave off such a situation. “We will have ongoing discussions with Bill and his attorney and hopefully will reach a mutual resolution.”
The Bridge also reached out to the Secretary of State’s office inquiring about whether the open meeting law had been violated. Jenny Prosser, general counsel and director of municipal assistance, said simply that the council had wandered into a grey area. Regarding the question of talking about an issue outside a duly warned meeting, Prosser said the law only applies if you have a quorum (in this case four members) discussing an issue. “The mayor is a member of the council. The law would only apply if you have four members in a quorum,” she explained. The Bridge asked about the legality of a decision arrived at by a quorum of a public body following a series of conversations (either in person, by telephone, social media or email) outside a warned meeting.
“A series of conversations that lead to a decision … has not yet been put before the court,” Prosser said. “We get lots of calls on board transparency issues. We let them know it is a grey area. We have gotten calls from citizens with concerns about boards (having a) … string of communication. The context has been emails. Sometimes phone calls. It is not uncommon. Anyone has a right to challenge the board in court,” she said.