By Jim Condos
COVID-19 has strained so many of our institutions over the last year. As our Vermont government agencies work to support our state through this crisis, we must always work to maintain the public’s right to know. Fortunately, in Vermont we have made great strides.
Confidence in our public institutions is needed now more than ever. The misinformation and disinformation surrounding the 2020 Election has only served to further erode faith in government and our civic processes.
The best way to combat this disintegration of the public’s trust is through transparency. As I’ve said before: sunshine is the best disinfectant, and serves to reassure the public that our institutions are working for the people.
If governments are operating and making decisions behind closed doors without oversight, it is often for a reason. They may not have the public’s best interest at the forefront. We must always remember that we are a government of, by, and for the people and the people should rightly be able to hold their government officials accountable.
After the last four years, it’s also time to recognize the important role our journalists and media outlets play in helping to keep government accountable. The media acts as our government watchdog, keeping the public informed and aware. Efforts to attack the free press and keep the media in the dark are a dangerous and slippery slope.
That is why, when the Legislature was first considering temporary amendments to Vermont’s Open Meeting Law so that public bodies could meet remotely and safely during the COVID-19 crisis, I worked with legislators to ensure these accommodations would not come at the expense of the public’s right to attend and participate in their local government’s meetings.
Through the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, a division of my office, we have worked with many state agencies to support public records officers. The records we create in the course of doing government business belong to the people, not to the agency or individual that created them. Providing open and transparent access to these records starts with proper records management, and we are proud of the work we have done to encourage greater transparency across all facets of government.
We cannot rest on our laurels though. There is, and will always be, the need to challenge our institutions and public officials to do better. Transparency is not just a value which must govern our work in the public sector: it’s the law.
With regards to holding open public meetings and making public records accessible, I always say the public has a right to know, right to attend, and the right participate. The public’s ability to hold its government accountable relies on transparency. We must do all we can to throw back the shades and let the sunshine in.
Happy Sunshine Week!
Jim Condos is the secretary of state for Vermont. His office created guides to help citizens and public servants navigate the state’s Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act. They can be found here under the “Municipal” tab.
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 Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Boston Globe, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.