Our opinion: Current crises shows importance of an open government

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The skies and the mood don't reflect it, but this is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information sponsored by news organizations across the nation, including The Manchester Journal.

The week also reminds residents that extracting this information from government and its agencies is not always easy and requires diligence on the part of news organizations and support from a public that requires this information.

During the course of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, the media has been pressuring local, state and federal agencies to keep them and, by extension, the public informed of developments. Good information from credible sources not given to rumors is of critical importance in helping people learn about the virus and its impact and maintaining perspective in these difficult times.

Here in Vermont and in neighboring states, leaders have been clear about the threat posed by the coronavirus and the steps residents need to take to protect themselves and slow the growth of this epidemic. It's a clear and welcome contrast to the muddied response at the federal level, where President Trump made policy decisions calculated to improve his chances of re-election, and for weeks, in the face of mounting scientific evidence to the contrary, declared COVID-19 was no big deal. It is unfortunate that some who believed these lies will be sickened by a virus that certainly poses a serious health crisis.

It turns out that what our parents told us about honesty being the best policy holds doubly true for government. Gov. Phil Scott, his administration and the Legislature seem to grasp this concept. And Scott has been forthright and consistent to this point about communicating policy decisions and the reasoning behind them, as well as making key officials such as Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine widely available to the media.

That doesn't mean there's not work to do in Vermont. Our state still has more than 250 exemptions for public records on the books. That's far too many for a state whose constitution's Article 6 declares, with a very Vermont lack of ambiguity, 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."

Last fall, Scott, Secretary of State Jim Condos and other state leaders demonstrated their command of Article 6 when they opposed Attorney General T.J. Donovan's assertion that residents should be charged for taking cell phone photos of public records, which the state Supreme Court had ruled they had the right to view for free. Donovan's arguments about the cost of preparing and redacting documents seems to have found little favor with lawmakers, who understood that Vermont needs more openness in government, not less. We hope Donovan has changed his mind.

Let us be clear: Free access to public records is of paramount importance to the people of Vermont and their welfare. In this election year, we call upon all legislators and elected state officials to actively support widening free access to public records, and removing exemptions to public records laws, which only serve a culture of

secrecy we neither want nor need.

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