Tonight I am including three pieces of information.
First, the Governor just announced he is ordering all restaurants and bars in Vermont to close tomorrow by 2pm until April 6th. Takeout service will still be allowed. Also, he announced that the DMV will be extending license and registration renewals for 90 days beyond their effective expiration date beginning March 13, 2020. If an individual’s permit, temporary license or permanent license and/or registration has expired since March 13, 2020 law enforcement officers should honor a 90 day waiver of those credential expiration dates. Drivers can still go online or use the postal service to renew a license or registration.
Second, immediately below is an email I received from Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters this afternoon when I inquired about Open Meeting Law requirements during this emergency. His feedback did not differ significantly from the guidance circulated by the VT League of Cities & Towns.
Third, below Chris WInters' email, is information I gleaned today from a call with VT Department of Labor and the Agency of Commerce & Community Development (ACCD). This information relates to unemployment insurance benefits and emergency loans for small businesses.
Finally, I am trying to chase down some information at the Agency of Education for Mariah related to privacy constraints in sharing information on which students qualify for free/reduced lunches so that food delivery can be prioritized. I haven't heard back yet, but will share that information with this group.
Let me know if there are others who should be included on this email beyond those who were at yesterday's meeting.
Have a good evening,
From: Winters, Chris <Chris.Winters@vermont.gov>
Sent: Monday, March 16, 2020 1:00 PM
To: Tim Briglin <TBriglin@leg.state.vt.us>
Subject: RE: Questions about Open Meeting Law
We’ve been answering this a lot and are putting together a formal guidance memo. Here is a sample, with official guidance to follow soon, which we will make more widely available on muninet, on our website, and through social media:
Access to public meetings is based in the VT Constitution:
That all power being originally inherent in and co[n]sequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.
Current law permits selectboard members, and other members of public bodies, to fully participate in meetings from a remote location, provided that certain requirements are met.
See 1 V.S.A. §312(a)(2) Right to attend meetings of public agencies
Any member who participates remotely via electronic or other means must be able to hear and be heard throughout the meeting. This means that participating by speakerphone or Zoom or Skype, for example, can be appropriate, while participation by email is not.
Each member who participates remotely must identify himself or herself when the meeting is convened. Any vote that is not unanimous must be taken by roll call.
And this next point is important:
If a quorum or more of members will be participating remotely, the Open Meeting Law requires that the meeting agenda designate at least one physical location where a member of the public can attend and participate in the meeting.
At least one member of the body, staff member, or other designee must be physically present at the location.
Not every Vermonter has access to a computer or the internet, and some may not even have access to a phone in order to attend and participate.
The above requirements do presume that a physical location will always be provided for members of the public to attend, participate, and express their opinions on matters being considered at public meetings. These requirements do not preclude, however, the ability of a public body to provide an additional means for members of the public to participate from a remote location, if members of the public so choose. Tools such as Zoom, Skype, or GoToMeeting can be used to maximize public participation and to provide community members who cannot physically attend with a way to make their voices heard.
And to be very clear: The Secretary of State’s Office does not have any authority to amend or waive any portion of the Open Meeting Law – that would generally require action by the Vermont Legislature. We do suggest that public bodies consider offering and encouraging use of electronic conferencing tools as an alternative, though not exclusive, means of citizen participation in public meetings.
We believe boards should seriously consider whether these meetings can be postponed and when they are necessary, to schedule them in a location that is large enough to accommodate the CDC’s social distancing recommendations in case a few people do attend.
We also think that extra efforts should be made to make the public aware of phone-in or teleconferencing options to encourage remote participation.
We also strongly recommend that selectboards and other municipal public bodies consult with their municipality’s counsel for advice about legal options in handling specific scenarios. In addition, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns has compiled this list of resources and recommendations for towns preparing for a public health emergency.
I hope you find this helpful. I know the Senate Gov Ops committee is taking up some open meeting language Wednesday morning, but I have not yet seen it. Our recommendation would be that if there is any consideration to waiving the open meeting law, it be for a limited time, for the physical location requirement only, and that consideration be given to requiring increased notice requirements around how the public can participate remotely.
We do worry about public access to public body decisions and the potential abuses that may occur if meetings are closed to the public, so this is a significant risk that needs to be weighed along with the public health threat.
If you have other questions or feedback for us to help in responding to these types of questions, please feel to let me know.
Christopher D. Winters
Deputy Secretary of State
Unemployment Insurance/VEDA-SBA Assistance
I have received a significant number of inquiries about business closings and unemployment insurance (UI). Currently there is no directive by the Governor or the Health Department to close businesses. It is up to the individual businesses to decide what is in the best interest of their employees and their customers. New York has ordered the same, but some cities have closed all bars and restaurants. Many local businesses have decided to close.
There has been no decision yet on "essential" vs "non-essential" businesses, such as a grocery store and pharmacy vs a clothing store. Anticipate the Governor making an announcement soon on the closing of non-essential retail stores.
If a business does decide to shut down, what is the impact on their employees? Right now the existing unemployment laws apply, where they have to be laid off by the business on a temporary or permanent basis in order to receive benefits. There may be regulatory relief from the feds and the state on the impact on their experience rating calculations for UI, but that is not the case as of today. Any impact on their experience rating for UI would not be effective until July 2021, so there is time to fix this legislatively in the interim. The legislature took steps to do that last week in H. 681.
For the businesses who suffer financial distress because of COVID-19 there is help at the state and national level in the form of low interest loans. VEDA will have their program set up very quickly, the feds are still working on the details of theirs. Businesses should contact the Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation (802-295-3710) to inquire about assistance. Also, businesses should be in immediate contact with their lenders if they are having problems meeting their loan payments.
The self-employed are not eligible for unemployment benefits, but are eligible for SBA/VEDA loans.
If there are individuals who have questions related to unemployment insurance benefits, the best number is our claimant assistance line at (877) 214-3332. Employer Assistance regarding UI: 877-214-3331.
The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act recently passed by Congress expanded the Small Business Act’s definition of a disaster to include Coronavirus (COVID-19). As a result, the SBA will be able to provide Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs) under a Governor’s Certification Disaster Declaration. In order for SBA to consider an EIDL declaration, the Governor must demonstrate that at least five small businesses in a disaster area have suffered substantial economic injury as a result of the disaster.
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) is working to identify businesses that meet the Small Business Administration’s threshold for SBA disaster loan assistance. Businesses are asked to complete an assessment form (available on the ACCD website at https://accd.vermont.gov/content/sba-worksheet) and return it to email@example.com as soon as possible to help ACCD advocate for eligibility. The goal is to gain information in each of the 14 counties across the state. ACCD is looking for data on impacts in the following areas:
* Economic Injury
* Supply Chain
* Workforce (Including that caused by lack of childcare)
* Business Travel
* Visitor Travel and Tourism Activities
* Remote Work Capabilities
The Agency has also established a hotline so that businesses may call to report impacts and be directed to resources: (802) 461-5143. The hotline
will be staffed Monday through Friday, 7:45 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.