This commentary is by Secretary of State Jim Condos and Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters.
Every year we join with government transparency advocates from around the country to celebrate Sunshine Week, serving as a reminder that a well-functioning government is built upon the public’s right to know. Good government is open government!
Government transparency, through open meetings and public records access, ensures ‘we the people’ have the tools necessary to verify our government officials are acting in our best interests, and to hold them accountable if we believe they are not.
Over the last several years we have witnessed a growing, politically motivated assault on truth which has fractured public opinion and eroded faith in our government institutions to the lowest it has been since the Nixon era.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” is a transparency rallying cry we have embraced in years past, but looking forward, we believe it is going to take more than just opening the curtains. It’s time to get busy scrubbing the walls and floors and working harder to show the public what we do, how we do it, and to invite their input.
The internet and social media have given us more access to information than ever before, and we can get it faster. But how do we discern fact from fiction? Too often, it can feel like drinking from a fire hose. The positive effect this has is an even greater expectation of transparency by the public. As government officials, we must rise to this new standard.
If we don’t, it will be too easy for the conspiracy theorists to fill in the unknown with new speculation and shout “I told you so.” While we know there is no basis for their outlandish claims, if we close the doors on government work to the public, they will assume the worst of the decisions being made in the dark.
While COVID-19 has placed unique challenges on how to hold open meetings and provide access to public records, largely we have worked to create new ways to ensure access for Vermonters, and it’s imperative we do not stop now when it comes to finding new ways to bring the public in.
Whether we’re talking about elections, government spending, or local debates on town ordinances, I challenge every Vermont government official from dogcatcher to Governor to work as if we had 640,000 Vermonters watching over our shoulders. This challenge extends all the way up to our President.
From our little corner of state government you can find transparency resources on the municipal page of our website, https://sos.vermont.gov. You can also find tools like our election myth v. facts page, campaign finance system, lobbyist database, and handbooks on Vermont’s transparency laws. Stay tuned in the coming week for an announcement on a virtual transparency tour, where we will be providing education and training on Vermont’s transparency laws to all interested Vermonters, from state and municipal public officials to journalists, who play a critical role holding government accountable, and engaged residents who want to know more.
Transparency in government is the only way we can assure Vermonters, and Americans, that our government institutions are truly of, by and for the people. Happy Sunshine Week!