Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has long been a champion of open access to government, and last week we ran his annual column in support of Sunshine Week. In it, he wrote of the threats to free access to government information and public records, saying the right to know has been under direct assault. Leahy cited the examples of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” retaliatory restrictions of press access by the White House, and attacks on the working press for eroding access to real facts and real information about what government is doing.
We applaud Sen. Leahy’s efforts in keeping light shining into the darkest corners of government. His work on a national level has been yeoman, and many of the open access laws and freedom of information rules currently in place are a direct result of his efforts.
But while Sen. Leahy has been focused on keeping government information open on the national level, Vermont could use more of the bright light of Sunshine Week applied to state and local government.
We are not saying there are broad conspiracies to undermine open government or the media in Vermont. But there is a general lack of understanding of how important open access is to maintaining an informed democracy. Journalists see this time and time again.
For example, Vermont is one of the few states that has no ethics oversight for its government. There have been attempts to create an ethics commission that would allow citizens to file ethics complaints against state employees or elected or appointed officials. This commission would be an ombudsman of sorts. It would point out ethics violations, and would look at the most serious allegations as violations of law. It would also take less serious violations and recommend education, training or corrective action. Vermont has nothing like this right now, so this sort of commission could be extremely helpful toward opening up Vermont government at all levels for greater public access and accountability.
There is also current legislation to enact a shield law that will protect student journalists and their sources. Vermont has no law currently on the books that applies to student-run newspapers. By not protecting a student’s right to investigate their school or administration policies, or even question them, not only are young Vermonters at risk of reprisal but the public is at risk for not learning about issues that may affect children and teens.
As for municipal government, boards are often too quick to use the executive session provision of a meeting to discuss issues that fall far outside the narrow restrictions the law allows for. This misuse of executive sessions is repeated time and again. Along those same lines, board or commission members often use email threads to discuss public business. While efficient, email is another common way government can be closed off to public review and input, and a violation of open meeting laws.
While there is no doubt that many small-town officials lack of knowledge about open meeting laws, that really shouldn’t be an excuse. Plenty of training, expertise, and information is available at state websites and from support groups like the Secretary of State’s office, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, the Agency of Education, and the Vermont School Boards Association.
But perhaps the biggest threat to open, transparent government is public apathy. Not caring about decisions being made in local town halls, at the Statehouse, or in Congress is a much bigger threat to this state and this country than fake news, leaks or attempts to discredit the media. Many politicians are perfectly content to do their work without any scrutiny from the press or the public. When that happens, democracy is threatened and we all lose.
While Sunshine Week may have come and gone, it’s vitally important that light continues to illuminate the dark corners of government at every level.