By Deb Markowitz | Special to the Vermont Guardian
Posted March 13, 2007
No one values freedom and democracy more than Vermonters. Indeed, the settlers who founded Vermont in 1777 broke away from New York because the government was distant and unresponsive, leaving them vulnerable to conflicting land claims, arbitrary bureaucratic decisions and general lawlessness.
Those early Vermonters drafted the new state constitution to ensure that there existed checks and balances to hold government accountable.
The 1777 Constitution declared that government officials were servants of the people and are "at all times accountable to them." The constitution guaranteed public access to the legislature, easy access to deeds and land records and it included two provisions guaranteeing freedom of the press.
From this idea — that government belongs to the people — has evolved a body of law designed to guarantee public access to the records, the meetings and the decisions of Vermont government. We have laws that guarantee the public’s right to attend and comment during meetings of public agencies, laws that require agendas and minutes of meetings to be made available to the public upon request. We have laws that allow a person to walk into a town hall or office of state government and ask to view the agency records.
But it is not as simple as it once was. Today we are facing many threats to the open and transparent government envisioned by our founders. Over the years, exemptions to these laws have been created. The exemptions seek to balance the right of the public to hold government accountable with other interests, such as the right of the governor to get frank advice from his advisors and department heads, the rights of boards to discuss employees in private, and the right of government to negotiate contracts outside of the public eye. Indeed there are now more than 200 exemptions to the laws guaranteeing access to the records of public agencies, and numerous exemptions to the right to attend the meetings of our public bodies. (Use our searchable database here to see what is exempt.)
With the expansion of government agencies there has also been growth in the number of records created, without a concomitant commitment to the management of those records. A record that cannot be found is no different than a record destroyed or never created. Discussing management is not as elevating as proclaiming a right to know. Yet you cannot have the one without the other.
We are also confronting issues well beyond anything our ancestors could have anticipated. The new world of computer technology allows information to be searched, combined and broadcast in ways that are even unimaginable to us. At the same time, as government services have expanded, so have the number of public records containing information on the health, finances and other personal information of citizens. And, since 2001, concern for open records has been further tempered by security concerns. What public information could potentially aid those who mean us harm? How much should we sacrifice our personal privacy or our right to transparent government because of possible threats? These are important questions to us, the heirs of Vermont’s founders.
This week has been designated Sunshine Week to highlight the importance of the laws that guarantee the public’s right to access government information.
During the week, let us recommit ourselves to open government. We must roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of identifying the laws that limit our access to government and consider afresh the policies behind those exemptions. We must avoid assuming that ever newer and faster information technologies provide solutions, without first knowing precisely what it is we want those technologies to do. And we must remember that not all of the answers lie in high blown celebrations of our right to know but rather in the sustained commitment to managing those records to ensure they are available when we need them.
Most of all, let us recognize what an incredible resource public records and government information is for making government transparent and accountable. It is only with broad access to information that we can measure how well we are being served. And it is only with broad access to the records of government that citizens and government alike can make informed decisions about the direction of the state.
This week let’s return to the past and learn from Vermont’s early leaders. They knew that a government of the people depends on making citizens a party to decision making through access to records and decisions of government.
Democrat Deb Markowitz is Vermont’s secretary of state.