In Vermont, Open Government is Good Government

The following blog post is one of several that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.

By Jim Condos | State of Vermont

It’s Sunshine Week, a national celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.

All across Vermont new board members and other town and city officials are being sworn in and taking their seats for the first time. I am thankful for the many Vermonters willing to serve their communities and sacrifice their time for the greater good. This is what makes Vermont great.

In my 18 years on the South Burlington City Council, six years on the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ Board, eight years in the Vermont Senate, and now seven-plus years as Vermont’s Secretary of State, I know the personal satisfaction that comes from serving others and making a difference. On the other hand, it’s not always about smiles and pats on the back.

In their service, these newly elected officials will subject themselves to conflict, criticism and sometimes even embarrassment. That comes with the job and comes straight from the Vermont Constitution (Chapter 1, Article 6):

“That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.”

It is also enshrined in our open government statutes:

“It is the policy of this subchapter to provide for free and open examination of records . . . Officers of government are trustees and servants of the people and it is in the public interest to enable any person to review and criticize their decisions even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment.”

Open government makes for better government. Here at the Secretary of State’s Office, we try to operate in a way that assumes 625,000 Vermonters are looking over our shoulders as we go about our daily work. It keeps us motivated and accountable and we advise others in state and local government to look at their service in the same way.

As trustees and servants of the people, it’s what we signed up for. We have a duty to let the sunshine in — to let the people we serve see what we are up to. That’s why I made accountability through transparency a priority when I first ran for secretary of state; and why I am still talking about it today — it’s that important. We must constantly push back against the “deny first” mentality and defensive posture of some state agencies and local governments. Such an approach undermines trust and dodges accountability.

Sure, it’s a burden on government to hold open meetings and produce public records upon request, but it’s an appropriately placed burden. The people have the right to know.

I have a great deal of respect for these public servants and know for a fact that most of them are as hard-working and honest as can be. I am confident they will do their best to learn and understand Vermont’s open government requirements, and I hope they take advantage of some of the materials we make available on our website.

To celebrate Sunshine Week, I encourage all Vermonters to get involved, demand accountability, and participate in your government. Take advantage of our open government laws, and let the sunshine in.

Jim Condos is secretary of state for Vermont.

Above photo taken by Flickr user Mark Goebel. It was used with permission under a CC 2.0 license.

NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.

Major Supporters of NEFAC include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, WBUR and Boston University. 

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