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Transparency And Accountability In Government

Public Records, Open Meetings, and Campaign Finance Disclosure

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The right to hold government accountable is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”) and more specifically in Article 6 in 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.”)

It is this right that underlies Vermont’s public records and open meetings laws. Government is accountable to the people at all times.

Yet recently, questions have been raised whether Vermont’s records and meetings laws are able to provide citizens with the access they need to exercise this right. Officials routinely deny requests for records that many feel should be open. Public bodies meet in closed sessions without giving adequate reason for closing out the public. The only recourse to address violations is through litigation, which is expensive. Newspapers, which once brought most open records and public meetings cases, aren’t going to court nearly as often because of diminished resources. Even if a plaintiff prevails in court, judges may, but are not required to, award fees and costs. Few do.

Government is also accountable to citizens at elections. Article 8 of the Vermont Constitution states citizens have a right to elections that are “free and without corruption.” Government must ensure such conditions are met. Yet Vermont has earned failing grades from national groups that analyze states’ campaign finance laws. Access to campaign finance reports is poor. Personal financial statements are not required of candidates running for statewide offices or legislative seats; nearly every other state has such a requirement.

 

Resources and Documents

In Vermont, access to public records is a constitutional right, laid out in Article 6 of the state's constitution. The right to privacy, however, is a statutory right, laid out in laws adopted by the legislature. See Article 6 and privacy rights as described in the state's public records law.

In other states, both rights are constitutional rights. Florida's constitution, for example, contains both the right to access public records and the right to privacy.

Documents relating to the two public records cases that the ACLU has recently litigated can be found in the legal docket section of our Web site. Those two cases are:

Another public records case that wound its way through the courts and came before the Vermont Supreme Court:

  • Bain v. Clark -- request for police radio logs. The ACLU filed an amicus brief in the case; the brief included descriptions of how Vermont handles access to police records compared with other states and the federal government. All documents pertaining to the case are posted together, including our amicus brief.

All three of these cases involve the (c)(5) law enforcement records exemption to the Vermont public records law. Attorney Gregory Sullivan, a Suffolk Law School professor and New England First Amendment Coalition director, has stated that the Vermont statute on access to police records is weak compared to the federal standard developed to comply with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests:

The ACLU would like to see changes to the state's open meetings and campaign finance disclosure laws. Read a summary of proposed changes.

Other Web sites of interest concerning open govenment and the First Amendment: 

 

 

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