Advocates: More needed for government transparency

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MONTPELIER — Lawmakers want to tweak Vermont's open meeting and public records regulations, but some say the changes don't do enough to increase governmental transparency.

The Senate has advanced a bill, H.910, that addresses issues such as the definition of a public meeting, response times for record requests and repeal of exemptions to public records law.

Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, said officials in the Secretary of State's office and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns "field hundreds of calls" annually from residents with questions about open meetings and public records.

"Several provisions of this bill attempt to address some of the frequently occurring questions and some potential areas of confusion and concern surrounding these laws," Collamore said.

But open-government advocates had been pushing for more than clarifications.

"Overall, I think we were disappointed that it doesn't do more. It's not really a significant step," said Chloe White, policy director at the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In January, the ACLU and Vermont Press Association were among those issuing a call for records-law reform, arguing that "Vermont state agencies too often deny valid requests for public records, undermining a key mechanism for government accountability and transparency."

The groups noted that the Center for Public Integrity in 2015 gave Vermont an "F" grade for public access to information.

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos also has been pushing for changes. He said his office "fields daily complaints from the public and members of municipal public bodies" who have questions about the state's open meeting and public records statutes.

"Those citizens who call us are often frustrated by a lack of responsiveness and by an apparent lack of understanding of the transparency and openness required by these important laws," Condos said Wednesday.

In its current form, H.910 won't won't make such problems disappear. But it does make some changes, including:

- The bill defines what constitutes "business of the public body" and what qualifies as a public meeting.

For example, the bill says a quorum of a public body is not meeting officially when attending "social gatherings, conventions, conferences, training programs, press conferences, (or) media events" as long as members of that quorum aren't discussing matters that they "expect to be business of the public body at a later time."

The bill also says a quorum of a public body that is attending "a duly warned meeting of another public body" is not itself holding a public meeting, "provided that the attending public body does not take action on its business."

- Current law says a custodian of a public record must produce it "promptly." H.910 clarifies that promptly means "immediately, with little or no delay, and, unless otherwise provided not more than three business days."

- The bill says any public records exemption that is "enacted or substantively amended" starting in 2019 will automatically expire in five years unless the Legislature extends it.

Depending on whom you ask, there are either more than 240 or more than 260 current exemptions to Vermont's public-records law. H.910 says future exemptions should not last indefinitely.

Mike Donoghue, executive director of the Vermont Press Association, said that change is "a big plus."

From the ACLU's perspective, White said the exemption language is "not a huge change for access to public records, but I do think it brings in some more accountability."

- H.910 also emphasizes public records' importance by saying they are "essential to the administration of state and local government."

Public records "document the legal responsibilities of government, help protect the rights of citizens and provide citizens a means of monitoring government programs and measuring the performance of public officials," the bill says.

The Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to its revision of H.910. After one more vote in the Senate, the bill will return to the House for further consideration.

Those who pushed for stronger reforms concede that they'll have to pursue their agendas next year.

H.910 "does not cover all the things that the Vermont Press Association hoped it might cover. But it is half a loaf," Donoghue said. "And I've been around long enough to know that it's rare that you get a full loaf when legislation is passed."

There are a few key issues that are expected to come up in future debates, including the fact that Vermont law does not prohibit public bodies from charging a fee for simply inspecting records.

"This is the law in other states, and we have a very inconsistent approach by various agencies and boards in Vermont," Condos said.

The secretary of state also says Vermont should have an "open government ombudsman to act as the advocate, arbiter and bridge between citizens and public bodies around open meeting and public record compliance."

Lawmakers ran out of time to discuss creating an ombudsman position and struggled to find a funding source, Condos said. But he vowed to "bring this back next year in the new Legislature."

The ACLU had a long wish list of reforms, most of which didn't make it into H.910. One of the organization's priorities is imposing penalties for failing to comply with the Public Records Act.

"We wanted consequences for violations, which there are in every other New England state," White said. "If there's a willful violation, then the agency can be held accountable."

Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, expressed a similar sentiment on the Senate floor Wednesday. He said H.910 "would have been much stronger" if it included provisions to assure compliance with public records law.

"I frequently hear comments from people who make open records requests that state agencies are either ignoring or failing to adhere to defined guidelines," Brock said. "And their only recourse is to go through a very costly procedure of suing state agencies for public records."

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