Our opinion: We all have a right to know
In 2002, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state's public records law. A year later, after nearly 300 exemptions were defeated in the Florida Legislature, the American Society of Newspaper Editors hosted a Freedom of Information Summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss freedom of the press. In 2005, ASNE launched Sunshine Week, a non-partisan, non-profit initiative celebrated in mid-March to coincide with founding father James Madison's birthday on March 16.
Sunshine Week is intended to empower journalists and regular citizens to take up the cause of freedom of information, demanding transparency from government agencies. Everyone can, and should be, part of Sunshine Week because every voice makes a difference when it comes to demanding accountability from those whom we delegate to operate our schools, local, state and federal governments and police agencies.
In Vermont, the Public Records Law is meant to guarantee you and the media have access to the records of government bodies at all levels. Anyone can request a public record and the keeper of records has no right to ask why the records are being requested. And a public record is defined as anything "produced or acquired in the course of public agency business." This includes written documentation, e-mails, computer files and video or audio recordings. The Vermont Open Records Law does have 29 exemptions, including, but not limited to, police investigation files, personnel and tax documents, student records, anything related to an ongoing legal dispute in which a public agency is involved and library records.
Vermont also has a very robust Open Meetings Law, which narrowly defines when a public body, whether that's a volunteer committee or members of a board that receive a stipend, can meet behind closed doors. A meeting of a board or committee is considered a public gathering if, at any time, a quorum of the members are together for the purposes of deliberating or deciding on public business. Examples of reasons for executive sessions, in which the public can be denied access, include contract negotiations or personnel matters, disciplinary sessions, anything covered on lawyer/client privilege or whenever a discussion could result in a clear and imminent peril to public safety.
It is incumbent upon any member of a public board or government agency to know their obligations when it comes to open records and open meetings. There is no excuse for being ignorant of the rules or for trying to "massage" the rules for any purpose whatsoever. It behooves any public agent to be above board and zealous in insuring all actions are transparent, understandable and within the bounds of his or her responsibilities.
It is also incumbent upon any keeper of record to facilitate open records requests unbegrudgingly and without undue delay. There are limits to what we can expect from our keepers of record and when we can expect to have it in our hands, and any request that requires extra staff work or materials could result in a charge to the requester, but those guidelines and charges are outlined in "A Matter of Public Record," which is available at www.sec.state.vt.us, the Vermont Secretary of State's website.
But anyone requesting a public record or demanding a public body be open to oversight must also be respectful and knowledgeable as to what are the limits of the law. Citizens, though they have the right to know how public agencies operate, also should be considerate of the demands placed upon the members of our boards and committees, as well as our municipal officials. They all have regular jobs with concomitant duties that need to be complied with in a timely manner and any records request puts further weight on their shoulders.
Nonetheless, the law is clear: Public officials have an obligation to respond, and in a courteous manner, to any records request that falls within the parameters of the state statute. Public officials must also be clear as to the reasons why they may require a non-public session to discuss their business, and they must also understand that no decision can be officially made in executive sessions; all votes must be taken in the public's presence.
While there are valid reasons to keep some things confidential, all public officials should remember that they are going about the public business and we have a right to know what they are doing, how they are doing it and who they are doing it with.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.