Groups working for legislative reforms to counter alarming trend of state government secrecy, recurring denials of public access to information
MONTPELIER—A coalition of journalists and open government advocates including the ACLU and the Vermont Press Association are calling on state legislators to reform Vermont’s public records act this legislative session. The effort comes in response to growing concerns — from stakeholders ranging from journalists, attorneys and advocates to selectboard members, businesses, and citizens acting in their personal capacity — that Vermont state agencies too often deny valid requests for public records, undermining a key mechanism for government accountability and transparency.
James Duff Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont: “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. That’s why we’re calling on the legislature to take some simple, commonsense steps to ensure our government is truly open and accountable to the people of Vermont.”
The Center for Public Integrity recently gave Vermont an ‘F’ in access to public information. Problems include a long and growing list of exemptions—over 260—agencies routinely invoke to justify withholding public records; long delays in production of records to requesters; inconsistent and exorbitant processing and copying fees; and routine, improper denials by Vermont agencies to legitimate records requests. Oftentimes, the only recourse for someone whose request is denied is to file a lawsuit, and numerous courts have ruled against Vermont agencies for violating the state’s public records law.
Examples include the case of a journalist who was denied access to data about bullying and harassment in Vermont schools, the Vermont Journalism Trust’s extended legal battle with the State over production and redaction of EB-5-related documents, and the City of Burlington’s refusal to release to Seven Days records related to the sale of Burlington Telecom—all resulting in litigation.
The coalition has developed a series of recommendations that have been submitted to legislators responsible for Vermont’s public records law, and will be testifying in favor of reforms that eliminate the many barriers to public access that currently exist.
They have also released a public survey to help evaluate how well the state’s public records laws are followed, and to identify potential room for improvement.
Survey organizer Hilary Niles, an independent journalist in Vermont, noted that access to government information is an internationally recognized human right. “It’s part of my job to exercise that right, and I’m trained to do it. But what obstacles are encountered by members of the public who don’t have the benefit of training?”
The anonymous survey seeks 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, such as a state’s attorney, sheriff, or a business or nonprofit organization carrying out government functions.
The survey is available online at www.bit.ly/PublicVT.