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Vermont Guardian

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Out in the open

Posted March 15, 2007

To mark Sunshine Week, the Vermont Guardian is publishing articles and commentary that focus on keeping public records, and government decisions, in the light of day.

The timing for such a week in Vermont is quite appropriate, since many of us participated in the age-old Town Meeting Day tradition, spending time with our neighbors to openly debate, and vote, on spending plans and other items of concern.

This is how government is supposed to be done — out in the open.

If only lawmakers in Montpelier, and bureaucrats across the state, could embrace such simplicity.

Sure, there are plenty of well-meaning folk under the golden dome, but those good intentions have left us with 207 reasons why a government document shouldn’t be released to the public. Certainly, some of the information — such as personal identifiers — are withheld for good reason.

Still, 207 exemptions?

On a scale of one to seven, Marion Brechner of the Citizen Access Project based at the University of Florida, ranks Vermont at a 3.5 (according to a review of 44 categories measured in all 50 states).

This puts Vermont 38th in the country for its definition and handling of public records. Only Wisconsin, Utah, Nebraska, Montana, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio, New Hampshire, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nevada are less “open.”

What company to keep.

The Legislature is looking to fix this by improving the overall management of public records, while at the same time seeing if those 207 exemptions can be winnowed down to something reasonable and appropriate.

We agree that from better records management and protocols are likely to flow more consistency when it comes to responding to public requests for information.

What the legislation doesn’t address, however, is enforcement of the rules in place. Neither the attorney general nor the secretary of state are arbiters of disputes. No, instead, it’s the individual agency chief and ultimately the courts that settle records disputes. For any citizen, journalist or no, this is a costly route to ensure open access to public records and government.

Vermont could learn from New York, which has someone on the payroll whose job is to enforce public records and meetings laws, and hold public servants accountable who improperly, or knowingly, withhold information from the public.

Enforcement, along with fines and other punitive measures, will make sure any streamlined management system is an improvement over the current one.

So long “Old Boys’ Network”

On March 8, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. The day recognizes the economic, political, and social achievements of women and what they’ve contributed to a more just and equal world.

We should also recognize the contributions women have made to the state of Vermont, such as former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, House Speaker Gaye Symington, and House Majority Leader Carolyn Partridge, among many others who play important roles in business, education, and the non-profit world.

Today, the state of Vermont leads the nation with the percentage of women seated in the Legislature. Nearly 70 women are serving in Montpelier, and all have made a valuable contribution to making Vermont a better place.

In the town of Brattleboro, another milestone took place last week.

Assistant Town Manager Barbara Sondag helped turn around a $500,000 budget shortfall in the town finances and is filling in for outgoing manager Jerry Remillard.

On Town Meeting Day, voters reelected the outspoken Audrey Garfield to a second-term and Dora Bouboulis to a one-year term. Bouboulis helped to spearhead an impeachment resolution in Brattleboro (it passed). Their election represents the greatest number of women in leadership positions for the town of Brattleboro in the town’s history.

The Vermont Guardian would like to thank all the women in political leadership who have made invaluable contributions to the state. In addition, we also congratulate Sondag, Garfield, and Bouboulis for their new leadership roles.