Rutland Herald Editorial

Backs turned

January 11, 2001

Rutland City government missed an opportunity to correct a long-standing tradition that subtly insults Rutland residents at every aldermanic meeting.

For years the aldermanic chamber has been arranged so that members of the Board of Aldermen sit at desks inside a rail that forms three sides of a square. The public must sit outside the rail. As the board members take their places inside the rail, the board president sits at a podium facing the public, but the other board members turn their backs on the public, which is behind them outside the rail.

This arrangement sends a message. It says: We are a closed circle and we don't really like facing those who elected us.

Priests saying Mass turned to face the public years ago. The Board of Aldermen could have rearranged their chamber to create a more open and inviting relation to the public.

Are we being too sensitive?

Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz doesn't think so. In her publication, Opinions, she addressed the same issue: "In one town the selectboard sits around a small table for its meeting, and the public are left to watch the backs of the board members as they conduct the business of the town. Understandably, this makes it difficult for the public to hear or participate in the meeting.

"The open meeting law requires all public bodies to conduct their business in a forum that allows the public to be present, hear what is going on, and provide reasonable comment. While there may be some situations where one or more board member has his or her back to the audience for part of a meeting, a board should not have as a general practice conducting its business with its back to the public. This violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the open meeting law."