"For decades, Vermont has been at the bottom of the list of states for the public's right to know the truth about government operations, records and meetings."
So begins a recent opinion piece by Joe Choquette, sent by the Vermont Press Association to various media outlets around the state.
(As a point of full disclosure, Choquette is a longtime lobbyist with Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, whose clients include the Vermont Press Association, which represents the interests of the 11 daily and more than four dozen non-daily newspapers in Vermont.)
However, for the past few years, Vermont has seemed to make great efforts to improve that ranking. For instance, the Green Mountain State earned a D+ letter grade in a 2012 State Integrity Investigation by The Center for Public Integrity. One year later, however, Sunlight Foundation Transparency Report Card gave Vermont a B for its efforts.
This is in large part due to a new public records law, passed by the Legislature two years ago, which (at the time) had "strong support" from Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of State Jim Condos.
During this past session, new legislation worked its way through the statehouse (passed by the House on Feb. 28 and the Senate on May 7) and now sits on the governor's desk, awaiting (presumably) his signature.
However, unlike recent efforts to improve government transparency, as it were, this new law -- H.497 -- contains several areas of concern.
The penalty for violating the open records law -- $500 -- has stood strong since the 1970s. It's a simple matter of cause and effect: Surely a more substantial penalty will lead to more boards taking the rules more seriously.
Often -- sometimes a little too often -- our local school and selectboards hold portions of their meetings in executive session. Typically, this happens when boards need to hold "sensitive" discussions (for example: legal or fiscal negotiations; real estates transactions; employee or personell matters; student or employee disciplinary records; or, as the National Freedom of Information Coalition puts it, discussions that would "result in a clear and imminent peril to public safety").
H.497 does not address whether minutes need to be kept during these executive sessions. While on the surface this may seem incidental, if the executive session is later challenged, and the board is found to have been behind closed doors illegally, there's no record of any discussions that took place.
The new bill, as pointed out recently by our colleagues at the Bennington Banner, also "gives boards a 'get out of jail free' card for a first infraction. So even if a board was violating the open records law for several months prior to getting 'caught,' it could get no penalty at all for that first transgression, no matter how egregious it is."
So we'd like to echo the Banner's editorial board today: The role of open government and freedom of information is crucial in a democracy. This freedom is worth defending.
We join other media outlets around the state in urging Gov. Shumlin not to sign this bill, which will do little to improve on the steps taken to make Vermont's governing bodies more transparent.