CHAPTER 3: Basic Nuts and Bolts of Commission Work

Table of Contents

Effective conservation commissions are well organized and approach their activities in a professional, objective manner. The purpose of this chapter is to promote this kind of effectiveness.

3-1 Organizational Meeting

According to the enabling legislation, “At its organizational meeting a conservation commission shall adopt by majority vote of those present and voting such rules as it deems necessary and appropriate for the performance of its functions.” (See next section and Appendix A for sample rules/bylaws)

Formation of the Montgomery Conservation Commission: The Montgomery Conservation Commission was created in 2010 with the assistance of a regional conservation partnership, Cold Hollow to Canada, that works to conserve the northern forest and assist conservation commissions. The partnership provided advice and mentoring to get the Montgomery Conservation Commission started. Read More

In many cases, once all the conservation commissioners have been appointed, the town clerk, the town manager, a selectboard member, or another municipal officer will set up the organizational meeting of the commission and will see that some member is assigned the task to bring a draft set of rules to the meeting. If such a meeting has not been arranged within a reasonable time after the members have received notice of their appointments, someone on the commission should take the initiative to get a draft set of rules and to call the organizational meeting.

At the first meeting, members should become acquainted, discuss their interests, and elect officers. A regular meeting schedule and meeting location should be established. In addition, rules for operation should be developed and voted on as soon as possible. Making these preliminary decisions as soon as possible helps a conservation commission gets organized and functioning. Members should familiarize themselves with VT Open Meeting Laws to ensure the commission is in compliance. (See 3-6 Vermont’s Open Meeting Law)

Photo Credit: Bernard Paquette 2018

3-2 Rules

Rules (sometimes called bylaws) are adopted by an organization for governing its meetings and affairs efficiently and fairly. Rules should be specific enough to be useful guidelines, but they also should be flexible to allow some room for the changing needs of the commission. For example, the number of conservation commissioners should be given as a range (and as allowed in the enabling legislation) rather than as a specific number.

The enabling legislation states that conservation commissions should vote on a set of rules at its organizational meeting. These rules do not need to be approved by the selectboard. Rules can be revised periodically, if necessary, to reflect changing conditions. The rules should specify the steps officially used to revise them. Rules need not be elaborate but should include the following topics:

  • Name of group;
  • Purpose (including specific reference to the enabling legislation by number);
  • Members and their duties;
  • Officers and their duties;
  • Election of officers;
  • Filling of vacancies and dealing with inactive members;
  • Committees and their responsibilities;
  • Meetings of group (time, place, notices, quorum, etc.);
  • Procedure for amendment of rules.

Sample rules from Thetford are presented in Appendix A as a guide for the formation of a commission’s rules. Although it is helpful to review rules of other conservation commissions or similar organizations, a conservation commission should not simply adopt a set of rules developed by someone else.

The rules of a municipal conservation commission must be in accordance with the enabling legislation. The rules should be reviewed by an attorney to ensure that they meet legal requirements. Rules of a conservation commission can be reviewed by the town attorney or the Municipal Law Center of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. An hourly fee is charged, based on whether the review is performed by an attorney or a paralegal assistant.

3-3 Officers and Members

Conservation commissions “shall annually elect a chairman, a treasurer, and a clerk,” according to the enabling legislation.  These annual elections should be held after the selectboard has made appointments to fill expired terms. Although the enabling legislation does not limit the number of terms a commissioner may serve in a particular office, some commissions have found the rotation of officers to be an advisable practice.

The chairperson presides over all commission meetings, prepares agendas for meetings, and generally directs the work of the commission. The chairperson is typically the spokesperson for the commission who deals with other organizations, town boards, the media, and the public.

The treasurer recommends action on all bills received by the commission and prepares and presents financial reports to the commission. The treasurer also prepares and submits an annual financial statement to the town.

The clerk (or secretary) keeps the minutes of all meetings of the commission and records any action taken by the commission. He or she posts public notices of commission meetings, as required.

Although the enabling legislation does not require a commission to elect a vice-chairperson, it is advantageous to do so. The vice-chairperson can perform all duties of the chairperson in case of absence or need. This position can serve as training ground for future chairpersons. If a Vice-chairperson is not elected, then the chairperson shall ask someone to preside over a meeting when in their absence.

In some municipalities, commissions have elected co-chairs to run their commission. This is a way to share the responsibility of leading the commission. However, it is not actually in keeping with the enabling legislation. A preferable model is to elect a chairperson and a vice-chairperson and to develop a working relationship between those two people such that work loads are divided to their mutual agreement.

Some commissions may write up an official job description for its commissioners, which includes responsibilities and expectations. Members are usually assigned specific tasks or projects in keeping with their interests and areas of expertise. Members may be required to participate on a committee or head at least one project of their own interest. They should report their progress on a regular basis. Members are expected to have good attendance records at commission meetings. In addition, they are encouraged to develop their personal communication and leadership skills so that they can be as effective as possible.

3-4 Committees

Conservation commissions can appoint standing or ad hoc committees, as needed. A standing committee is one that exists in perpetuity. An ad hoc committee is formed for a specific purpose and a limited time. See the Sample of Conservation Commission Rules in Appendix A for how “committees” can be empowered.

Committees may consist of conservation commissioners as well as interested townspeople. Thus, committees are effective ways to expand energy, expertise, and participation and get work done between monthly meetings. Committees also help strengthen the local conservation constituency and are a pool for future members of the commission. If the Conservation Commission forms a subcommittee for a specific task at an official meeting, that group can do work on that task between meetings as long as it is not a quorum of the full conservation commission. (See 3-8 Attendance and Quorum) If that were the case, anytime the subcommittee gets together it would be considered a full meeting of the commission and need to be warned. See  3-6 Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

An effective way to get volunteers for committees is to ask! Being specific about the task and the needed skills or areas of expertise is best. Former conservation commissioners may also continue to contribute to the commission in this way. Students may want to be on committees to help with special projects. Formation of a committee should happen at a regularly warned meeting. Clear parameters for the work to be accomplished should be set and a clear timeline for reporting back to the commission at a regular warned meeting should be established.

Committee members who are not appointed members of the conservation commission may not vote on commission business. They may not represent the commission publicly unless so designated by the commission on a case-by-case basis. The chairperson of a committee should be a conservation commission member.

Committees are typically established to focus attention on a particular issue at a greater level of detail than that given to other commission business. The committees often compile information and report back to the full commission to help educate all members. Or committees may function as work teams, conducting short- and long-term projects of the commission.

Committees are a good way to delegate work so that each member has some specific responsibilities. This spreads both the workload of the commission and the sense of pride in the commission’s accomplishments. Committees usually hold meetings outside of the regular commission meetings to accomplish their tasks and then report back at regular conservation commission meetings.

Examples of committees that have been formed by Vermont conservation commissions include trails and greenways, agriculture, wetlands, forests, field trips, education, Green-Up Day, environmental impact assessment, and wildlife.

Sometimes, a committee is so successful that it leaves the purview of the commission and becomes its own local organization. The Quinlan School House Committee initially was formed as part of the Charlotte Conservation Commission to move and restore the historic structure. The Committee became the Friends of the Quinlan Schoolhouse, a separate, nonprofit organization. One goal of the Woodstock Conservation Commission was to create a local farmers’ market. As a result of the Commission’s work, the Mount Tom Farmers’ Market Association was formed.

3-5 Town Staff and Paid Consultants

Arrowwood Inventory of Fayston, Warren, and Waitsfield: Natural Community Mapping: The Arrowwood Inventory of Fayston, Warren, and Waitsfield began when these towns were awarded a Municipal Planning Grant from the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. This grant led to the hire of Arrowwood Environmental to create inventories of the natural communities in these three towns. These inventories involved identifying, assessing, and ranking wildlife habitat, upland and wetland natural communities, vernal pools, connecting lands, and rare elements. The first step to acquiring this information was to examine GIS maps of the area in order to identify the above elements remotely. After marking the locations of the different elements observed on the map, the towns held a public event to gain input from the citizens of Fayston, Warren, and Waitsfield. Read More

Because conservation commissions are an official part of town government, they may be able to arrange for staff support from one or more municipal employees. Operating within town government builds credibility for the commission as a group of municipal officers doing their job.

Some town staff support may come in the form of a municipal employee who serves as a secretary or clerk for the commission on a part-time basis in addition to their other municipal duties.  Conservation commissions ordinarily have access to services of the town attorney.

Bolton Floodplain Inventory: The Town of Bolton Conservation Commission engaged Arrowwood Environmental to perform a Floodplain Forest Inventory, including documenting existing flora (woody and herbaceous) and areas of existing forest within the the Town, on both sides of the Winooski River. This was accomplished with both the help of those floodplain landowners who allowed access to their land and a survey conducted from the river itself, and use of aerial maps. The inventory expands upon Arrowood’s previous work for the Science to Action Project (2011) and will provide Bolton with a baseline inventory to better inform town planning, including planning preparedness for extreme weather and flood resilience. Read more

A conservation commission may decide to hire paid consultants when it has a need for expertise or assistance in a particular project. For example, conservation commissions have hired consultants to conduct a natural resource inventory, to produce maps of wetlands, or to assist in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping projects.

3-6 Vermont’s Open Meeting Law

(1 V.S.A. § 311 to 320) requires all meetings of public bodies to be open to the public at all times, unless a specific exception applies. 1 V.S.A. § 312(a)(1). The purpose of the law is to promote transparency, accountability, and better decision-making in government and guarantees that any member of the public may attend any meeting of every board or commission in state, regional, or local government and that no board or commission may hold a public meeting without first giving notice to the public.

Excerpt From A Guide to Open Meetings from the Secretary of State 2019

To whom does the open meeting law apply?

“The open meeting law applies to “public bodies” of the state and its municipalities, including any state or municipal board, council, or commission, as well as any committee or subcommittee of these bodies. 1 V.S.A. § 310(4). It also applies to the meetings of any committee or subcommittee that is created or empowered by a public body to do its work, no matter its size. A meeting is defined as a gathering of a quorum of the members of a public body. All commission and committee meetings are included in the open meeting law.

When does the open meeting law apply?

A board or other public body must comply with the open meeting law any time a “quorum” holds a “meeting,” that is, gathers to discuss its business or to take action. 1 V.S.A. § 310(3)(A).

How does a board provide notice of its meetings?

The open meeting law recognizes three types of meetings: regular, special, and emergency. Depending on the type of meeting, a board or other public body may need to provide advance notice by “publicly announcing” the meeting, by posting public notices, or both. Public bodies also usually need to create an agenda in advance of each meeting and make it available to the public. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d)(1), (2). See below for more information on agenda requirements.

Regular meetings

A public body schedules regular meetings by adopting a resolution setting the time and place of the meetings. This information must be made available to the public on request. 1 V.S.A. § 312(c)(1). When a board meets regularly on, for example, the first Tuesday of every month, the law does not require additional public announcement or posting of these meetings so long as the time and place has been clearly designated by resolution or other determining authority (statute, charter, regulation, ordinance, or bylaw). Public bodies must, however, create and make available meeting agendas for regular meetings. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d)(1), (2).

Special meetings

A special meeting occurs when a board meets at a time or place outside of its regular meeting schedule. At least 24 hours before each special meeting, a public body must publicly announce it by giving notice of the meeting’s time, place, and purpose to a newspaper or radio station serving the area, as well as to any person who has requested in writing to be notified of special meetings. 1 V.S.A. §§ 310(5), 312(c)(2), (5). Municipal public bodies must also post a notice of each 6 special meeting in or near the town office and in at least two other designated public places in the municipality. All public bodies must give oral or written notice to each member (unless a member has waived this notice). 1 V.S.A. § 312(c)(2). In addition, agendas must be created and made available for special meetings. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d)(1), (2).

Emergency meetings

An emergency meeting may be held in the event of a true emergency, that is, “only when necessary to respond to an unforeseen occurrence or condition requiring immediate attention.” Emergency meetings do not require public announcement, posting of notices, or 24-hour notice to members, so long as some public notice is given as soon as possible before the meeting. 1 V.S.A. § 312(c)(3). Note that an emergency meeting should not be used if the public body is able to comply with the 24-hour notice requirements for special meetings. There is no agenda requirement for emergency meetings.

What are the requirements for meeting agendas?

At least 48 hours prior to a regular meeting, and at least 24 hours prior to a special meeting, a meeting agenda must be posted to a website that the public body maintains or designates, if one exists. In addition, and within the same timeframes, a municipal public body must post the agenda in or near the municipal office and in at least two other designated public places in the municipality. A meeting agenda must be made available to a person prior to the meeting upon specific request. 1 V.S.A. § 312(d)(1), (2). Note that there is no agenda requirement for emergency meetings.

What are the requirements for minutes?

Public bodies must take minutes of their meetings. Minutes are the permanent record of the formal actions of the public body and play an important role in recording the history of the public body’s business.

The open meeting law requires that minutes “give a true indication of the business of the meeting,” covering all topics that arise. At minimum, minutes must include: the names of all members of the public body who are present at the meeting; the names of all other active participants; all motions, proposals, and resolutions made, and their dispositions; and the results of all votes, with a record of individual votes if roll call is taken. 1 V.S.A. § 312(b)(1).

Minutes are public records and must be made available for public inspection and copying after five calendar days from the date of the meeting. If a public body maintains or designates a website, minutes must also be posted to that website no later than five calendar days after the meeting. Except for draft minutes replaced with updated minutes, posted minutes must not be removed from the website sooner than one year from the date of the meeting for which they were taken. 1 V.S.A. § 312(b)(2).

A Guide to Open Meetings from the Secretary of State 2019

3-7 Regular Meeting Schedule, Place, and Time

Meetings may be conducted online using software such as Zoom, Teams, Google etc. Members do not need to be physically present in the same space, but the agenda needs to clearly show a physical location where members of the public may go and participate in the meeting and at least one member of the commission or town staff have to be at that location. This may require some expense in outfitting a municipal building with appropriate online audio / visual equipment but is also an important aspect of climate resilience and limiting fossil fuel use / unnecessary travel. For some meetings, online works well. This can also significantly increase participation from townspeople that weren’t able to participate in person. See 3-10 Online Meetings  Also see the Vermont League of Cities & Towns Remote Public Meeting Software Guidance for Vermont Municipalities

Most conservation commissions welcome interested citizens at their meetings. These citizens can help the commission determine the needs and desires of the townspeople and increase support for commission activities. A notice on the local Front Porch Forum, town listserv, or local newspaper may increase attendance by the public. Note that according to statute, meeting minutes must include the names of “all other active participants in the meeting.”

In each public meeting, the law requires a public comment period, during which the public must be given a reasonable opportunity to express opinions. This does not mean that members of the public have a right to disrupt the meeting. Visitors may not speak without permission. A commission should use its discretion and invite comments on a topic when they feel it is valuable or appropriate. Note that according to statute, meeting minutes must include the names of “all other active participants in the meeting.” Maintaining good public relations is an important consideration. See Chapter 5 Communication & Engagement

Most conservation commissions in Vermont meet at least once a month. For example, a commission may hold its meeting the first Tuesday of every month. Active commissions with several projects often meet twice a month. Each commission should decide what works best for its members and its operations but meeting at least monthly leads to more productive commissions. One reason is that meetings can serve as deadlines for getting work done. Towns that meet regularly online may consider holding one in-person meeting per year to help get to know each other.

In-between meetings work can still get done. The commission could choose to form a committee to advance a specific task before the next meeting or on a different timeline and then have the committee report back to the full commission at another regularly warned meeting. The committee must not represent a quorum of the full commission (in which case it would need to be another warned meeting) but can include people that are not on the commission.

In scheduling their meetings, conservation commissions will probably want to avoid conflicting with the schedules of other key boards and community groups, such as the selectboard or the planning commission. This way, members can attend the meetings of the other groups.

Some commissioners find it difficult to attend summer meetings because of their seasonal work demands or vacations; commissions may decide to have fewer meetings in the summer. However, if a commission does not meet during the summer, momentum for projects may suffer. In general, commissions meet during evening hours, for example, from 7 to 9 p.m. Whereas evening hours make it easier for the public to attend, the hours should be set upon the convenience of commissioners. Some commissions have found online meetings increase flexibility and allow for new times of day as options. For example, the Williston Conservation Commission meets at 7am.

Conservation commissions most frequently meet in a room in the town office or the local school. Increasingly commissions are meeting mostly online with at least one member present at the designated location. At least one commission member must be physically present at the meeting place designated in the agenda.

For in-person meetings the space should be public and meet the following criteria:

  • Comfortable environment, including temperature;
  • No distracting background noise;
  • Adequate seating for commissioners and guests;
  • Adequate lighting;
  • Freedom from telephone or people distractions;
  • Bathroom facilities available.
  • Audiovisual equipment available. this includes web camera that picks up on everyone present in the room, a microphone, sufficient speakers, a display of any online content on projector or screen.

3-8 Attendance and Quorum

One of the most important duties of a conservation commissioner is attending meetings of the commission and actively participating. This spreads the workload among members and allows the commission to conduct its work by having a quorum at meetings.

A quorum is a majority of the conservation commissioners. Most people interpret this to mean a majority of the commissioners currently serving on the commission. For example, if six of nine positions on a commission are filled, then the quorum is four people. Others interpret a quorum as a majority of those present and voting. What constitutes a quorum should be clearly defined in the commission’s rules / bylaws.

If a meeting is held but the commission lacks a quorum, members present may still conduct business but not vote or take binding actions. To encourage attendance, the clerk should send out agendas and call members to remind them of the meeting. Refreshments and guest speakers can serve as incentives for attendance.

Committees can be empowered to do work outside of regularly warned meetings as long as they are NOT a quorum of conservation commission members and have a task that was voted on at a regularly warned meeting.

3-9 Agenda

The agenda is part of the permanent record of a conservation commission, and the chairperson should prepare an agenda for every commission meeting. Moreover, meetings run more smoothly if an agenda is followed. An agenda that is agreed on at the onset can help avoid the frustration of wandering discussions and meetings that do not seem to “get anywhere.”

The agenda may be posted in the town hall. The clerk should email a copy of the agenda to conservation commissioners ahead of time, for example, four to seven days before the meeting. This advanced notice is a reminder of the meeting and of the focus of discussions. Additionally, the agenda is a prompt if certain items need to be added to the agenda or if information needs to be gathered in preparation for the meeting. 

In addition, it may be appropriate, at times, to supplement mailing the agenda with other background material that may be discussed at the meeting. This would allow members to be better prepared for the meeting and to make the best use of the actual meeting time. Prepare additional resources as hyperlinks that members can look at ahead of time. Use Google Drive or similar online storage to share files and create a separate account that can be cc’d for all Commission business to keep a log of activity. Email agenda’s and meeting minutes to this account or store in Google Drive or other cloud storage.

Items can be added to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting if new situations arise and require discussion. A sample agenda follows; all items may not be needed at each meeting. Some commissions have included approximate times when the agenda items will be discussed, which is useful for the public who may want to attend certain topic discussions.

Agenda of the (town) Conservation Commission for (month, day, year)

  • Call to order.
  • Finalize agenda.
  • Approve minutes of prior meeting.
  • Treasurer’s report.
  • Correspondence and announcements.
  • Old business.
  • New business.
  • Other business.
  • Public comment
  • Confirmation of next meeting date, time, and place.
  • Adjournment.

The clerk should review the draft minutes, which have been copied and sent to all members in advance of the meeting (for example, mailed along with the agenda). Additions and corrections are noted, and then the final minutes should be approved. The treasurer should present a budget report, if requested. The treasurer should also report any outstanding bills that the commission may owe.

Under correspondence and announcements, the chairperson should report significant email, mail and telephone calls received. Announcements of upcoming events should be shared. These and other items of interest can be circulated among members during the meeting but should not distract from the meeting. Material that requires further study should be duplicated for members to read outside of the meeting.

Standing and ad hoc committee reports should be listed separately under old business. New business should also be listed by topics. If a guest speaker is coming to a meeting, it is common to have the presentation before the business part of the meeting. If members of the public wish to add something to the agenda, it may be courteous to handle this early in the meeting.

Agendas can be sent to other town boards and officials and interested individuals. This increases understanding of commission activities and encourages attendance by non-commissioners, thus strengthening liaisons with other parts of town government. It is also a signal to other organizations that the commission is interested in being a partner with other groups.

Here is a sample agenda from Williston that clearly articulates how the meeting is being held and how to access the meeting both online and physical location. Note how important hyperlinks in the document are to ensure smooth access by the public and board members. See the section  3-14 Maintaining Records for ideas on setting up shared cloud storage as a way of maintaining, sharing and editing documents

3-10 Running a Meeting

Successful meetings achieve common goals through communication and collective action. They leave participants feeling positive, motivated, and productive. Meetings should make good use of participants’ time by dealing with those items that need to be handled by a group and cannot be handled reasonably by individuals or committees or by circulating written information.

Meetings are often unsuccessful because they are longer than they need to be, disorganized, or handled poorly when conflicts or disruptions arise. They leave participants feeling bored, frustrated, or unenthusiastic about the group. Part of the chairperson’s role is to provide the vision and leadership needed to run successful meetings. However, all members share the responsibility of using meeting time well. The following are generally accepted guides for all participants to follow to get more out of their meetings:

  • Be prepared and start on time;
  • Review and finalize the agenda as a group;
  • Agree on ground rules for the meetings, such as time limits, who will present what, etc., and remind people of the ground rules as necessary;
  • Maintain an informal, positive atmosphere by asking pertinent questions, encouraging participation of all members, listening carefully, avoiding being critical of others’ contributions, and using common sense and common courtesy;
  • Politely intervene to refocus the discussion back to the topic if members begin to wander, lecture, or make lengthy or repetitive comments;
  • Recognize and give members public credit and thanks for their efforts;
  • Be patient and allow time for everyone to follow and participate in the discussion; avoid rushing a decision the group is not ready to make;
  • When conflict arises among members, deal with it directly and as constructively as possible;
  • Put closure on an agenda item before moving to the next by reviewing important decisions, agreements on actions, and assignments, for example, who is to do what and when (see below);
  • Call for a formal motion and take a vote whenever appropriate for the record (see below);
  • Before closing, briefly analyze the success of the meeting to reinforce actions that promote group productivity;
  • Discuss preparations for the next meeting;
  • Thank everyone for participating and close on time.

It is up to the commission to decide how to conduct its meetings. It is suggested that meetings are run by using at least an informal form of parliamentary procedure based on Robert’s Rules of Order. This book can be purchased in most bookstores. These rules, based on common sense and common courtesy, help meetings run effectively. If the rules become overly burdensome, then they are typically being misapplied or overused.

The chairperson determines the extent of using parliamentary procedure, based on the discussion at hand. Thus, the use can vary. For example, the procedures should be followed fairly strictly when tensions are high and commission members have strongly divergent opinions. In calmer situations, the style can be more casual.

Some conservation commissions do not make formal motions to reach a decision. Instead, they conduct their business by consensus. This approach must be used carefully to assure it does not slide into decision-making by the chairperson or a small group, thus discouraging minority viewpoints.

True consensus is reached when each member feels comfortable with their contribution and the final decision. To assure that such is the case, there should be a clear, agreed upon, and formal mechanism for stating for the record what exactly is being agreed to. For example, the chair­ person should clearly state what he or she understands the consensus to be, for example: “Can I say that we are all in agreement that the Conservation Commission will offer an educational program to the Fifth Grade this spring?” This statement is then modified by the group until everyone can accept it.

Successful meetings often include two additional components: refreshments and fun! The chairperson can ask for a volunteer to bring refreshments for the next meeting, or the task can be rotated among members. The chairperson can encourage attendees to arrive on time by having a short time for refreshments and mingling before the meeting.

3-11 Online Meetings

Board members do not all need to be physically present for meetings. According to the Secretary of State’s office, A Guide to Open Meetings from the Secretary of State 2019

“ As long as certain requirements are met, one or more members of a public body may fully participate in discussing the body’s business and may vote at a regular, special, or emergency meeting by electronic or other means without being physically present at the designated meeting location. 1 V.S.A. § 312(a)(2).

If a quorum or more of members will be participating in a meeting electronically, the meeting agenda must 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, or at least one staff member or other designee, must be physically present at this location. 1 V.S.A. § 312(a)(2).”

It is up to the commission what culture they adopt around online versus in-person meetings. In-person meetings are best for collaborative decision making and when everyone around the table needs to be heard and valued. Online meetings work fine for presentations from experts or other sharing of content. Tools such as online whiteboards, voting platforms, cloud storage (e.g. Google Drive), and more can be very helpful.

If you do decide to do online meetings make sure you plan for it. It’s a different beast than in-person as there is the potential for anyone from anywhere in the world to join your meeting. Have one member that is technologically savvy handle the online meeting host responsibilities such as allowing access to participants, screen sharing, muting etc.

As more and more of our conservation work goes online, be sure that someone is up on the details. In the online environment, differing level of information and access to an online event should be advertised at different times. If your online event is set up without a “waiting room” don’t advertise the full URL openly because you can’t control what happens if a “zoom bomber” is intent on disrupting your event.

Use some sort of pre-registration system for larger online events (such as a likely to be well attended speaker). Zoom has this built in. Or use a registration tool like Eventbrite. This collects information on who is attending that helps hold people accountable for their actions by removing anonymity. In the Zoom registration system each participant gets a unique URL. These sorts of details are important for someone to be aware of since they greatly affect how you people access the meeting and what to do if someone is having trouble accessing your meeting.

Maintain a Waiting Room and the ability to remove people from the meeting without their being able to return is an important security feature for online meetings and events. Note that your commission should adopt a policy on how to handle public comment and disruptive behaviors in the online environment.

Maintain the ability as host to control who screen shares and the ability to mute microphones of attendees.

Make it easy to find the login information for committee members by embedding it in the agenda that warns the meeting.

The Town of Williston uses a reoccurring meeting and password (i.e. the URL does not change from one meeting to the next) to make it easier for members to find the link but this practice also increases the risk of disruptive behavior from outside individuals as the link is posted on every agenda. This makes the use of a “waiting room” all the more important. In the event of an extremely disruptive attendee, the host can remove the attendee to the waiting room.

3-12 Minutes

“A conservation commission shall keep a record of its transactions, which shall be filed with the town clerk as a public record of the municipality,” states the enabling legislation. This is usually done by uploading them to the town website.

Minutes should provide a clear and concise record of a commission’s business. They are an important part of the permanent records of a conservation commission. The minutes should contain sufficient detail so that those not present can determine what was done at the meeting and why. At minimum, minutes must include: the names of all members of the commission who are present at the meeting; the names of all other active participants; all motions, proposals, and resolutions made, and their dispositions; and the results of all votes, with a record of individual votes if roll call is taken. 1 V.S.A. § 312(b)(1).

Vermont’s open meeting law states that the minutes of public meetings, such as those of conservation commissions, must be available to the public within five calendar days of their meetings (1 V.S.A. § 312). If a public body maintains or designates a website, minutes must also be posted to that website no later than five calendar days after the meeting. Except for draft minutes replaced with updated minutes, posted minutes must not be removed from the website sooner than one year from the date of the meeting for which they were taken. 1 V.S.A. § 312(b)(2). The Access to Public Records Law (1 V.S.A. § 315 to 320) guarantees that all documents are open and available for review and copying unless they are defined as confidential by the law.

The clerk of the conservation commission takes the minutes. In their absence, another commissioner is asked to perform this task. A draft set of minutes is distributed to members before the next meeting, when revisions are made and final minutes are approved. At this point, they are filed / uploaded to the town website.

The following guidelines apply not only to minutes of the commission meetings but also to any committee meetings. Minutes should include:

  • The name of the body and the kind of meeting (e.g., regular, special, committee);
  • The date, time, and location of the meeting;
  • Presiding officer and members present;
  • Names of other people present (pass around a sign-in sheet or in a digital meeting ensure members of the public announce themselves if their online name is unclear);
  • Approval of the minutes of the previous meeting with any additions or corrections noted;
  • Summary of reports presented (long or complex reports should be provided by email ahead of time);
  • Summary of discussions and disposition of agenda items;
  • Record of each vote, including names of those making and seconding a motion, numbers voting in the affirmative and the negative, and names of those abstaining;
  • Date of next meeting;
  • Time of adjournment;
  • Name of person taking the minutes.

Minutes serve several purposes. They form the record of the activities of the conservation commission, remind members of tasks they agreed to perform, and assist in writing the annual report (see 3-13 Annual Report). As with the agenda, the minutes also can be sent to other town boards or officials, such as the planning commission, to keep the recipients abreast of conservation commission activities, increase interest and support, and encourage collaboration.

Conservation commissions may conduct on-site inspections, such as a visit to the site of a proposed development to offer comments and recommendations to the planning commission. Unless a site visit has been posted as a meeting, no decisions may be made there. Decisions and recommendations should be made at a future meeting of the conservation commission. In addition, a report (either oral or written) on the site visit should be made to place this information in the minutes and thus the record of the commission’s activities.

3-13 Annual Report

According to the enabling legislation, a conservation commission may “make a brief annual report to the municipality of its finances and transactions for the year just passed, and its plans and prospects for the ensuing year.” If the commission’s report is submitted for inclusion in the town’s annual report, the town clerk or selectboard can tell the commission in what form the report is most helpful and the deadline for submission (usually in January).

The conservation commission’s annual report should be treated as part of the permanent records of the commission and a good public relations tool.

The annual report is usually prepared by the chairperson or the clerk, with input from the other commissioners. The year’s minutes are useful for compiling this report. The report should be viewed as an opportunity to increase public support for commission activities and to educate towns­ people on timely issues. It should be well written and project a positive, upbeat tone.

The following are suggestions for what to include in a conservation commission’s annual report:

  • List present commission members;
  • Thank retiring members for their contributions;
  • Welcome new commission members;
  • Briefly describe the role of the conservation commission and when it was formed;
  • List funding and grants received;
  • Summarize projects worked on and what was accomplished;
  • Highlight how the commission assisted the planning commission and other local government boards and how the commission collaborated with community groups;
  • Indicate the kinds of assistance the commission can provide to residents, such as assistance with land conservation options;
  • List conferences or trainings attended by members;
  • Thank all volunteers and organizations for their assistance and collaboration;
  • Explain and encourage support for the town’s local conservation fund or other local initiatives;
  • Explain how the town benefited from having a conservation commission, for example, the benefits of a new community park;
  • Describe plans and goals;
  • Invite the public to approach the commission with interests, concerns, and potential projects;
  • Invite townspeople to volunteer for a vacancy on the commission or to help with specific projects;
  • Indicate when and where the commission holds its meetings and invite the public to attend;
  • Thank the townspeople, selectboard, etc. for their support.

If all the aforementioned items are included in the commission report, the report may be too long for inclusion in the town’s annual report. The commission may decide to submit a condensed version for inclusion in the town report and have the longer version available upon request.

Town reports are more complete if an annual report is submitted by each organization that provides service to the town. Thus, although not required by law, conservation commissions are encouraged to submit an annual report to the town report. The law requires towns to make town reports available to every voter. See Montpelier Conservation Commission’s Annual Reports

3-14 Maintaining Records

Commission records include agendas, minutes, annual reports, financial statements, committee and project records and reports, and documents such as planning documents, resource inventories, management plans for individual sites, maps, and photographs. Commissions are encouraged to maintain an orderly archive for use by the commission, other government bodies, and the public.

As required by the public access law, records of the conservation commission must be available to the public. For more information on what constitutes public records, see the Vermont statutes.

As mentioned above, conservation commissions are an official part of town government. Thus, they are entitled to a place to maintain their records and resource materials as well as a place to perform office duties. Some conservation commissions have office space for their use in the town hall or elsewhere. A commission may have its own mailbox slot. A filing cabinet or shelf space should be provided to hold any physical records. A separate online space should also be established that allows commissions to have upload and download privileges and read/write access. Many commissions have their own gmail account ( This gives them access to a shared Google drive and also provides a single and consistent email address that all conservation commission business can be cc’d.  Conservation commissions are entitled to have access to a portion of the town website and use town letterhead or stationery (or can develop their own).

Setting up a “library” with information relevant to conservation in the town is helpful to the commission and to other town officials and residents. This can be a resource section of the town website with downloadable PDFs, or a Google drive or even a physical binder/ book shelf stored in the town hall or the local school library. This library should include a copy of this handbook and other materials relevant to the commission, such as the Commission Vision & mission, natural resource inventories, maps, reports, articles, pictures of commission events, an email directory of town positions/ boards and groups, etc.

For many conservation commission projects, having thorough and accurate information is critical to success. Thus, maintaining a library that is organized, accessible, and useful is a worthwhile investment. If there is a large turnover of commission members over the years, it is extremely valuable for the present commission to know what the past commission activities included. Thus, another important reason for having a thorough resource library is to build on and not duplicate past work.

3-15 Orientation of New Commissioners

If new conservation commissioners are given an orientation to the commission, they will become functioning and contributing members sooner. New commissioners should be familiar with the mission statement and goals of their conservation commission. Commissions should provide new members with a directory of contact information for commissioners and other local officials and community groups.

New commissioners should read minutes of past meetings, project and annual reports and this handbook to understand conservation commissions in general and their conservation commission in particular.

3-16 Conflict of Interest & Liability

A conflict of interest is a conflict between one’s obligation to the public good and one’s self interest. It is often the appearance of conflict that counts more than actuality. If the public may believe that a commissioner could be conflicted because of financial or familial connections to the decision, it is better to abstain.

Participation in a discussion or recommendation by a commission member with a perceived possible conflict of interest could impair the credibility of a commission. Thus, a commissioner must abstain from all activity on any issue in which possible benefit or special interest could be inferred. The minutes of the meeting should note the abstention.

Liability of conservation commissioners for actions or failure to act is a complex subject and may require advice from a municipal attorney. However, commissioners are generally immune from personal liability in performance of their official duties under state and federal law. 

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