MONTPELIER — The administration of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has formally advised all executive branch agencies and department heads that they should never be charging for inspection of public records or assessing somebody for using a cellphone to capture the image of the document.
Administration Secretary Suzanne Young wrote in a one-page memo to leaders that state government offices should be transparent and work with the public when taxpayers seek access to documents.
Reaffirming a recent Vermont Supreme Court decision, the memo has been posted to the website for her state office, Young said Thursday.
Since the court ruling Gov. Scott, a Republican, had said publicly and to his cabinet he was pleased the decision confirmed the belief that inspection and picture taking of records should never be charged. Scott asked Young to produce a memo for members of the executive branch so there would be no confusion in any offices, Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said.
The memo covers most state government offices with the exception of some independently elected officials, including the secretary of state, attorney general and state auditor.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan, a Democrat, is the only known state official in Vermont, since the high court ruling, to disagree. Donovan said he thinks it is proper for government to charge taxpayers for inspecting public documents and taking pictures of the records.
Condos, also a Democrat, has long held inspection and self-copying should be free. He said that is based in part both on the U.S. and Vermont Constitution and the state Public Records Law.
Other branches of government, including the Legislature and the court administrator’s office believe taxpayers should have free access for viewing and for making their own copies. The Legislature has made amendments to the public records law in the past decade, but has declined to begin charging for inspection.
Young, a longtime state lawyer, including deputy attorney general, said in her memo that charging taxpayers to view records on government operations was totally improper and goes against the spirit of the law.
“The purpose of this memo is to convey the Governor’s directive that all Executive Branch Agencies and Departments shall refrain from charging for costs associated with preparing a public record for inspection pursuant to Vermont’s Access to Public Records Act,” she wrote.
“This includes any digital, photographic or other copies a person inspecting a record may choose to make with their own personal device.”
Young noted that the Vermont Supreme Court recently issued a decision in a public record appeal that made clear a public agency may not charge for staff time spent in complying with requests to inspect public records.
“The Court acknowledged that although staff time was required to prepare the records in question for inspection, the Court determined the law is clear: charges associated with staff time in complying with a request to inspect are not authorized,” Young said.
“Since no staff time or other State resources are required when a person makes a copy of a record with a personal device, such as a cellphone or camera, there is no justification for charging a fee in order to recover costs,” Young wrote.
She noted the decision made the law clearer and any state office not following the standard must modify its practices and procedures.
“Please note, once again, the Court reminds us that the Public Records Act reflects a strong policy that favors ‘free and open examination’ of records,” Young wrote.
Young said the Act has been amended over the years to provide state agencies and departments with accepted methods to work with those requesting access to public records to minimize cost, such as allowing for consultations and requests to narrow, when appropriate.
The Supreme Court decision is known as Reed Doyle vs. City of Burlington Police Department. It centered on a request by a local resident that — after viewing an officer’s interaction with a teenager — wanted to review the video from the police body camera because of concerns about the officer’s conduct.
Young, in sending out the memo, said the directive needed to go to those responsible for handling Public Records requests within any agency or department including public records officers, business offices and legal staff.
She said it was important for the memo to be shared widely within state government.