The following blog post is one of seven 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 Dan Barrett
Vermont is a small place with just 620,000 residents. Vermont’s government is similarly small: there aren’t many layers between taxpayers and their elected officials.
The benefit of such a small government is that Vermonters have easy access to public servants. The down side is that there aren’t a lot of government agencies whose full-time mission it is to research and publicize information about government activities and programs. There is no Vermont equivalent to the Congressional Research Service, the Government Accountability Office, or inspectors general. If Vermonters want to know more about what their government is doing, or want to gather facts and figures to convince an elected official to do something differently, they have to do the legwork themselves.
The two windows into Vermont government are the open records act and the open meetings act. The records act guarantees that any person can inspect state and local government records regardless of purpose. Generally, a requester can get access to records any time the agency with the records is open, and all requests have to be responded to within three business days. Vermont’s open meetings law requires government bodies to publicize meeting times and agendas so that the public can attend and see for themselves what is happening. The open meetings law restricts what government business can be transacted behind closed doors, and requires government bodies to make meeting minutes widely available for those who could not attend — an important requirement for a rural state with a long, tough winter driving season.
That’s not to say that information about the government is always easy to obtain in Vermont. Plenty of state and local agencies are suspicious of reporters and the public, and go to some length to make accessing information difficult. Government agencies expend a lot of effort on trying to get Vermont’s General Assembly to create ever more exceptions to the open records act — currently, there are more than 200, although many are duplicative. Just this month, the municipal governments’ lobbying group is trying to talk the legislature into making the open meetings law much less useful, by stretching the deadline by which government agencies would have to make meeting minutes available. (Read more about those proposed changes and why they are a bad idea here.)
During Sunshine Week, it’s worth remembering the value of transparency in Vermont. That transparency is what powers our small-scale government. We’d be in the dark without it.
Dan is an attorney at the ACLU of Vermont and a member of NEFAC’s Board of Directors.