Let the sun shine in

<p>This is Sunshine Week in America, a press-organized annual observance to stress the importance of openness in government. Lord knows Sunshine Week (March 14-20) deserves attention here in Vermont.</p><p>How Vermont’s laws on public meetings and public records got so messed up is a mystery, but there’s no question they’re messed up. The man who wrote the law, a former attorney general and state senator, put 27 exemptions in the law for the usual stuff — personnel matters, land acquisition, legal strategy in a lawsuit, that kind of thing.</p><p>Now, a couple of decades later, there are 230 exemptions. And they’re not easy to find; they’re scattered throughout the statutes, and aren’t cross-referenced to the public-records law. Nobody can say how all 230 exemptions got there, or whether they still make sense. They got into law without any clear analysis of their worth. Many “magically appeared” in conference committees, when House and Senate ironed out differing versions of the same bill, says a state senator.</p><p>Part of the problem is that Vermont is so small; people do business on a handshake. Someone you’ve never met will fix your leaky pipe, and when you try to write them a check, they say no, we’ll just send you a bill. Farm-stands sell their produce on the honor system. People trust one another. </p><p>All that is delightful, but there’s no consensus on where trust should end and verification begin. For instance, the state’s chief utility regulator had a Christmas party, and invited the head of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to drop by for some eggnog. He did. Confronted by a reporter, the regulator dissembled for a while, then conceded that the nuclear guy was on the guest list, but, you know, that doesn’t mean anything. The nuclear critics went bonkers, but the governor sided with the utility guy. It’s too small a state, people run into one another all the time, you can have a relationship and still be professional … no one worries about that stuff. </p><p>It’s the same with closed-door meetings. If the press doesn’t protest, nobody will. </p><p>Earlier this year, that nuclear guy got fired for telling state officials there were no underground pipes at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Turns out that there were underground pipes, and now they’re leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater. Turns out the fox got invited into the henhouse.</p><p>And, since there are no real penalties for violating the laws on public records and public meetings, governments are running roughshod over the law and the taxpayers. &nbsp;There are scores of recent examples in Vermont, but here are just a few:</p><p>• Burlington City Hall took $17 million from a taxpayer fund to pay bills for its new utility, Burlington Telecom and failed to reimburse the account in violation of the city charter and state license.&nbsp; The city wound up more than $50 million in the hole, and has put the entire city government’s financial stability in doubt.</p><p>• The Montpelier City Council mistakenly overpaid a contractor by $462,000 in 2004, and kept that a secret for five years. When the <em>Times Argus</em> planned to break the story, the City bought a full-page ad – at taxpayer expense – to provide its spin on the case. &nbsp;The contractor is now bankrupt.</p><p>• Rutland Police allowed an officer to stay on the job for six months while he was under criminal investigation for possible child porn on a city computer. </p><p>• Peoples Academy fired a soccer coach, but gave no details. &nbsp;When he appealed, he demanded a public hearing as provided by Vermont law.&nbsp; The School Board rejected the request and went into closed door session. He was rehired, but why he was fired and what changes were made to his contract have never been revealed. &nbsp;</p><p>• The University of Vermont, the state colleges and the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. asked the Legislature this year to add one more public records exemption — anonymity for donors. When a public uproar developed over whether big money might exert too much influence on state schools, the legislative leaders appeared ready to kill the fast-moving bill.</p><p>In some ways, our cracker-barrel approach to politics is quaint, charming and refreshing. Problem is, it’s wide-open for abuse, and despite agreement that public means public, there’s no champion for the public’s right to know here. &nbsp;Both the Public Records Law and the Open Meetings Law appear to be the only Vermont statutes that do not have a state office responsible for enforcement. &nbsp;That is distressing to not only the Vermont Press Association but to readers of our member papers.&nbsp; Newsrooms respond to calls, letters and e-mails from readers complaining about being shut out of meetings or denied public records. </p><p>If government wants our trust, it must tell us what it’s doing. It must comply with its own laws.</p><p><em>Tom Kearney, a native Vermonter, is the managing editor of the Stowe Reporter.&nbsp; He is the winner of the Yankee Quill Award, New England’s top journalism award and is chairman of the First Amendment Committee for the Vermont Press Association.&nbsp; </em></p>

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
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