By Todd Smith | The Caledonian Record
It’s “Sunshine Week” — a nationwide effort to promote transparency and open government. As columnist Bill Knight said, “Without open government, there’s no democracy. Without transparency, there’s no accountability.”
Vermont’s Public Records Law empowers residents to be part of a system of checks and balances, and to verify that government agents use their vast authority in appropriate ways. The law states, in part:
Officers of government are trustees and servants of the people and it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment.
It’s in keeping with Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution:
“That all power being originally inherent in and consequently 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.”
Despite these statutory commitments, Vermont remains notoriously secret, boasting over 260 exemptions to our open record law. Worse, an Associated Press report explained that over 200 of those exemptions were inserted into law by executive fiat — totally outside any legislative process for oversight by congressional operations committees.
When grading transparency and accountability, the non-profit think-tank Center for Public Integrity most recently gave Vermont an overall grade of “F” on Public Access to Information, Executive Accountability, Legislative Accountability, Judicial Accountability, State Civil Service Management, and Ethics Enforcement. Vermont gets a “D-” for State Pension Fund Management and Electoral Oversight; and a “C-” for Lobbying Disclosure, Internal Auditing, and Procurement.
Earlier this year the Vermont ACLU joined the Vermont Press Association in a call for broad reforms to strengthen the state’s notoriously weak Public Records Act.
The groups collectively seek legislative reforms to counter “alarming trend of state government secrecy, recurring denials of public access to information.”
The effort “comes in response to growing concerns … that Vermont state agencies too often deny valid requests for public records, undermining a key mechanism for government accountability and transparency.”
They cite the long and growing list of exemptions that “agencies routinely invoke to justify withholding public records; long delays in production of records to requesters; inconsistent and exorbitant processing and copying fees; and routine, improper denials by Vermont agencies to legitimate records requests. Oftentimes, the only recourse for someone whose request is denied is to file a lawsuit, and numerous courts have ruled against Vermont agencies for violating the state’s public records law.
“Examples include the case of a journalist who was denied access to data about bullying and harassment in Vermont schools, the Vermont Journalism Trust’s extended legal battle with the State over production and redaction of EB-5-related documents, and the City of Burlington’s refusal to release to Seven Days records related to the sale of Burlington Telecom — all resulting in litigation.”
We could add two dozen more examples.
The bottom line is that Vermont citizens have very few legal tools to hold their government to account. That is an assault on openness and freedom and leads often to stories of corruption, fraud, abuse and embezzlement in the Green Mountains.
Sunshine, meanwhile, is as important in moral and political spaces as it is in nature. It shines light under stones where political bottom feeders try to hide. And it’s the best defense of a free society against the instinctive urge of power brokers to shroud and obscure.
Sunshine week is a reminder to those folks – the elected officials and their bureaucrats — that we, the people are in charge. The information belongs to us.
Todd M. Smith is the publisher of the Caledonian Record, where this editorial first appeared. He lives in St. Johnsbury.