Our opinion: Time to Green Up public access laws
If you've ever had the feeling that obtaining information about your government is hard to come by in Vermont, you're not alone.
There are more than 260 exemptions carved into the state's public records statute by lawmakers. And in some corners of the state, the culture of openness and transparency when it comes to the public's right to know is sadly lacking.
The Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of Vermont journalists are asking the Legislature to fix this. Call it Green Up Day for the state's public records law.
"Vermont's public records law is premised on the notion that to be accountable, our government must be transparent. Unfortunately, state agencies routinely ignore that principle and the legal requirements of Vermont's public records law at tremendous cost to the state and to our democracy," said James Duff Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. "That's why we're calling on the legislature to take some simple, common-sense steps to ensure our government is truly open and accountable to the people of Vermont."
Some records exemptions make perfect sense. For example, the identity of whistleblowers is exempt from public records requests. So are confidential communications made by a victim of sexual or domestic assault to a crisis worker.
But some exemptions are head-scratchers, to say the least.
For example, let's say you're concerned about rail tanker cars on a rail siding near your residence or workplace, as was the case in North Bennington and Mt. Tabor. But "information provided by railroads to the Agency of Transportation (AOT) or the Transportation Board" and "petroleum storage facility reports filed with the Department of Public Service" are both exempt from the public records law. How about "toxic use reduction and hazardous waste reduction plans?" Surely that's vital to the public interest, correct? Sorry, that's exempt.
Maybe you're curious about market conditions for one of the state's most important exports —Vermont maple syrup? Nope. "Records acquired by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets regarding the purchase and sale of maple products" are exempt.
And on and on it goes. Some exemptions are so vague that they could easily be misapplied ("Anti-fraud plans"). Some are so narrowly written ("Notice to DFR from a fraternal benefits society of termination of appointment of an insurance agent") that one wonders how they ever became law.
In contrast, the federal Freedom of Information Act has only nine exemptions. And the penalty for knowingly violating the state public records act? A misdemeanor and a $500 fine. Which means the punishment for flouting the public's right to know is the same as if you're caught littering on a state highway. Both acts are disrespectful, but subverting democracy ought to cost more than improperly disposing of a cheeseburger wrapper.
The Center for Public Integrity gave Vermont a D-minus in its 2015 state integrity investigation, and an F in public access to information. Last year, a civil court in Rutland ruled the state Agency of Education improperly denied a former Rutland Herald reporter's request for data on bullying, harassment and hazing incidents. And VTDigger.org had to take the state to court to obtain public records in its investigation of the EB-5 scandal.
To be clear, this is not solely about reporters encountering roadblocks. It's ultimately about you, the residents and taxpayers of Vermont, and about your right to accountability and transparency from a government that is derived from your consent and funded with your taxes. Along with this effort, freelance journalist Hilary Niles is undertaking an anonymous survey seeking information about respondents' experiences requesting records from state and local government offices, as well as third party entities covered by Vermont's public records laws. It's for members of the public as well as the news media. You can find it online at www.bit.ly/PublicVT.
At its conference in November, the Vermont Press Association, of which this newspaper and its sister publications are members, resolved "to support the survey and its goals, and to work with all interested stakeholders in improving transparency in Vermont and the state's public records laws."
Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution says everything that ought to govern access to public records: "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."
It's your government. And the standard response to a request for information about your government — whether you're a reporter or just an everyday citizen who wants to know how your taxes are spent — ought to be a culture of transparency.
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