Open government is not a hard concept.
But it can be an impossible process. And as watchdogs, we know the truth of the matter.
Almost every week, one of our reporters encounters resistance from public officials who serve either in elected or appointed positions in government. Most times, it’s at the local level, and the pushback usually leads to more queries and even news articles or editorials about how local government is misinterpreting (or ignoring) the open meeting laws.
Part of our job in reporting what happens in our community is holding public officials accountable for the work they’re doing at taxpayers’ expense.
During “Sunshine Week,” newspapers across the country celebrate the laws that provide some transparency in government.
For the most part, we can offer praise to those working for Vermonters.
One of the laws requires governments to publicize when officials are gathering to meet — and unless they’re discussing real estate acquisition, personnel or litigation, the meetings are open to the public.
Some officials bend those criteria to hold discussions in private to achieve the outcome they want or to avoid hard debates with members of the public. That’s wrong, illegal in fact, and such tactics deprive citizens (and the media) of seeing how the process is working, or isn’t.
Secretary of State Jim Condos has made it a mandate of his office to ensure public officials serving Vermont are educated regarding Open Meeting Laws (and the Open Records Laws). He and his staff regularly field questions — from towns, cities and the media.
That kind of effort is appreciated and a service to us all, especially at a time in our history when it is easy to dismiss facts as irrelevant and purposefully attempt to undermine the work of the media and well-meaning citizens.
The threats to local journalism are real. News organizations are increasingly trying to do more with less. And businesses are turning to avenues other than traditional, paid advertising to market their wares and services. It is compounded by fewer people subscribing to print or online news sources, instead opting for “news feeds” and social media to gather information they believe is the news they require.
Added to that threat is potential funding cuts for public access television stations that provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of public meetings and government actions, providing yet another layer of accountability. The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering a rule change that would drastically effect how these public access stations survive. Vermont is served by 25 such stations that provide thousands of hours of local programming to communities every year, as well as hundreds of jobs to the Vermont economy.
We need a free press. We need public access. And we need our communities to abide by the law — properly warn meetings; properly conduct meetings; properly hold executive sessions; and properly post meeting minutes.
Vermont’s Sunshine Laws are stronger than they were a couple decades ago, but still not as strong as they could be. At that, they are better than what is found in other states.
The annual Sunshine Week recognition is meant to be a reminder of how important those laws are, and of the need to be vigilant in making sure attempts to weaken them are not successful.
And while the news media is behind the Sunshine Week recognition, it is important to realize these laws are not written for the benefit of the media. They are a guarantee the general public has access to government information, not just the journalists who often work on the public’s behalf.
Laws mandating that government records cannot be maintained in secret, government meetings cannot be held in private and government actions cannot be taken without public knowledge serve us all well. We would be remiss in not acknowledging the importance of those laws to the functions of our society, while in doing so perhaps subtly reminding all those in government service of their existence and intent.
To do any less is not in the public interest.
The secretary of state’s office has created guides to help citizens and public servants navigate the open meeting law and public records act. They can be found at www.sec.state.vt.us under the “Municipal” tab.