Friday January 18, 2013

Transparency in government promotes accountability of public officials and serves as the foundation for a free, democratic society. That’s why we’re encouraged by Gov. Peter Shumlin’s recent announcement to push for public records reform in Vermont.

The governor launching this effort on two fronts: First, he wants to provide better access to criminal investigation records, and he also unveiled a newly revamped website which details the state’s finances.

On the issue of criminal investigations, current state law requires such records to be kept confidential and generally unavailable to the public or the press. The governor is urging state lawmakers to adopt the more liberal federal standard governing the release of state records, according to a report from VTDigger.

Shumlin said during a press conference last Friday that he wants to allow public access to criminal investigative records unless the state’s lawyers can prove in a given case that disclosure will harm a specific person. The standard for the federal government’s Freedom of Information Act requests already has been adopted by 21 other states.

"Our hope is that such a law would result in greater transparency without compromising the effective investigation or prosecution of criminal cases," said Shumlin in a statement.

The question of access to state records has become a heated topic in recent years, with critics questioning the impartiality of investigations of police misconduct, overseen by police and state prosecutors, in which investigative records invariably remain secret, according to VTDigger.

However, Attorney General Bill Sorrell argues that access should be limited to cases in which law enforcement personnel are accused of misconduct on duty. That would protect the privacy of citizens mentioned in case files and save strained state prosecutors the burden of applying for exemptions, he told VTDigger.

"I think we should be more respectful of the personal privacy of average Vermonters," said Sorrell. "My proposal is to open up the files as it relates to police officer on-duty cases or investigations of police conduct on duty. Š For average citizens, the Legislature has it right. This isn’t a case where the federal government has it right."

While we appreciate Sorrell’s stand on this issue, we believe the arguments in favor of records reform outweigh the negatives. Transparency advocate Allen Gilbert of the ACLU-VT said Shumlin’s proposal would enhance public confidence in the integrity of police conduct. He expected any opposition to come mostly from the law enforcement community, especially from prosecutors, rather than from political quarters.

Because of the secrecy around criminal records, said Gilbert, there’s a public perception that it’s impossible to make informed judgments about how well police are doing their jobs, in the rare cases where police may have acted questionably, VTDigger reports.

"Police have been damaged by the exemption and the way it’s been used, because of the public’s perception that they’re trying to hide something," Gilbert added.

Shumlin also unveiled a newly revamped website which details the state’s finances, called SPOTLIGHT. He billed the website as a further step toward transparency and public understanding of the government’s use of taxpayer funds.

Vermont has consistently scored low on national ratings for government accountability. In 2012, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave Vermont a D-grade for fiscal transparency, and the Center for Public Integrity gave the state a D+.

Surely we can do better than that.

Shumlin said addressing the criminal records exemption, one of more than 200 ways the state can deny access to records, would be the fastest way to make progress on public records reform.