The Sentinel-Record



March 15 Barre-Montpelier Times Argus (Vt.)

Sunshine Laws

Too many times each year, our journalist­s have to call out elected officials for being in violation of the state’s open meeting and open records laws. On a few of those occasions, we have had to educate the violators with letters citing statute, and even reaching out to town attorneys to underscore our concerns about lack of transparen­cy and shadow government decision-making. It is far too common an exercise. …

This week is Sunshine Week, which was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors — now News Leaders Associatio­n — and has grown into an enduring initiative to promote open government.

It is designed to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of informatio­n. Participan­ts usually include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofit organizati­ons, schools and individual­s concerned about the public’s right to know. …

According to the American Presidency Project, Proclamati­on 5447: Freedom of Informatio­n Day, 1986, “March 16 is the anniversar­y of the birth of James Madison, our fourth president and one of the principal figures in the Constituti­onal Convention. Madison eloquently expressed the guarantees in the Bill of Rights, in particular in the freedoms of religion, speech and of the press protected by the First Amendment. He understood the value of informatio­n in a democratic society, as well as the importance of its free and open disseminat­ion. He believed that through the interactio­n of the government and its citizens, facilitate­d by a free press and open access to informatio­n, the government could be most responsive to the people it serves. Surely the American experience has proved him right.”

… It’s our duty as journalist­s “to shine light into the dark recesses of government secrecy,” as the Society of Profession­al Journalist­s notes on its website.

As watchdogs for the community, journalist­s for The Times Argus and Rutland Herald track the laborious process of public meetings: ensuring meetings were warned correctly; making sure those running the meetings are not excluding the public from discussion­s; making sure our elected and appointed leaders are not abusing executive sessions in order to have private conversati­ons that should be happening in open session; and following up by making sure the minutes of the meetings are posted within the constructs of Vermont law.

Considerin­g how many public meetings are held across the state every week, that is a heavy lift, but an important one, especially when journalist­s start to identify patterns and certain boards that are bold enough to be making public decisions outside the public, either to assert power, or to avoid process. Either motive is why we need Sunshine Laws to protect the process and the public.

Mining public documents — including emails, text messages and correspond­ences — also falls under the purview of public access to informatio­n. Any citizen has the right to ask to see public documents. The process requires a level of specificit­y, and there is a documented timeline for requests being accepted or denied, and it sets guidelines (and cost parameters if the request is for a lot of documents requiring copying and staff time) for the timely release of public documents.

Knowing that process — and the potential pitfalls — usually gives journalist­s a better chance of asking for informatio­n than a member of the public who might not know where a document was created or from where it was distribute­d. That is the luxury of having a responsibl­e local newspaper doing that work, seeking out those trouble spots, and calling out our civic leaders.

Bottom line: Public officials conduct themselves on behalf of the public. They do so in public, and their meetings are warned publicly, and their minutes are posted publicly. Except from notable exceptions, we all have a right to know.

Every citizen benefits from open government. Everyone deserves access to public informatio­n and what it means to you and your community.

It’s your right to know. It’s our privilege to keep an eye on it.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States