Violating Vermont's public records law seems to be catching on. But this time it's not police who are the offenders. It's the state education commissioner.
Shortly after announcing that the ACLU was going to court to contest Hartford police's refusal to hand over arrest records, we learned of another reporter getting stiff-armed, this time when a request was made for budget documents from the state Department of Education.
This refusal had a different twist to it, though.
The education commissioner didn't even bother to cite an exemption in the public records law as the basis for refusing the reporter's request. (There are more than 230 exemptions in statute, so there's a wide range to choose from.)
Instead, Commissioner Armando Vilaseca simply asserted he didn't want to make the budget documents public yet. He wanted school officials to see them first.
That's not an acceptable explanation for withholding a document that you've just acknowledged is public.
"It's either public or it's not public," said Secretary of State Deb Markowitz. "They're just saying no, they don't want to, and that’s not acceptable under the law."
The budget documents sought by Vermont Press Bureau reporter Peter Hirschfeld are not esoteric spreadsheets detailing revenues and expenditures in some obscure state department. They are documents telling local school districts how much they will be expected to cut their budgets next year.
In other words, these documents will affect kids' schooling, taxpayers' wallets, and teachers' contracts.
The budget reduction "targets" are the result of the state's "Challenges for Change" budgeting process, and have been the subject of heated debate. The release of the targets has long been anticipated.
The Education Department’' flouting of the law is not a good civics lesson. The commissioner has sent the message it's ok to break the law.
The public records law is not self-enforcing. It depends on local and state officials respecting the Legislature's determination that our state constitution requires government to be open and accountable.
The only recourse citizens have when officials violate the public records law is to file a court challenge. That presents substantial hurdles. The filing fee alone is $262.50. Then there are lawyer's costs. A case can easily run thousands of dollars. And even if the citizen wins -- that is, the judge determines the law was broken -- you usually don't get the fees and costs back. Justice, in other words, must be bought with cash.
One of the worst excesses of the Bush administration was the assertion that government works best in the dark. We have been conditioned to expect that government doesn't tell us the work it's been doing on our behalf. Litigation may pry loose some information. But is there any wonder why a site like WikiLeaks exists?
See the Vermont Press Bureau story, Education Commissioner Flouts Public Records Law On School Budget Cuts.