Let the sun shine in (on government)
March 18, 2010
By Tom Kearney
This is Sunshine Week in America, a press-organized annual observance to stress the importance of openness in government.
Lord knows Sunshine Week, which runs March 14-20, deserves some notice here in Vermont.
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.
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 — if they ever did. 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.
Part of the problem is that Vermont’s so small; people do business on a handshake. Someone you’ve never met will fix your leaky pipe, and when you try to write him a check, he’ll say no, I’ll just send you a bill. Farm stands sell their produce on the honor system. People trust one another.
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, nobody worries about that stuff.
It’s the same with closed-door meetings. If the press doesn’t protest, nobody will. It’s just the Vermont way.
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.
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. There are scores of recent examples in Vermont, but here are a few:
• 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. The city wound up more than $50 million in the hole, and has put the entire city government’s financial stability in doubt.
• The Montpelier City Council mistakenly overpaid a contractor by $462,000 in 2004, and kept that a secret for five years. When the Times Argus planned to break the story, the City bought a full-page ad — at taxpayer expense — to provide its spin on the case. The contractor is now bankrupt.
• 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.
• Peoples Academy fired a soccer coach, but gave no details. When he appealed, he demanded a public hearing as provided by Vermont law. 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.
• The Colchester School Board fired a hockey coach after hearing only from school administrators behind closed doors. The board did hold a “public hearing” later when the coach appealed, but affirmed the firing without comment. During the public hearing the School District admitted it had not provided to the coach all the public records from the investigation.
• 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.
• Swanton library trustees admitted they violated the open meeting law for over a year and fired the staff, but no state prosecutor would file criminal charges.
• In Waterbury, town committees studying proposals for two new fire stations ($3.3 million bond) failed repeatedly to warn their meetings or keep minutes. And, for the 20 or so years before the weekly Waterbury Record was founded in 2007, town officials admit they seldom provided agendas for their upcoming meetings, even though Vermont law requires them to post them.
• In Randolph, the Selectboard met in an executive session to discuss a three-year contract extension for the town manager, just before town meeting elections where some selectmen faced opposition. The vote for the manager, who still had 14 months left on his contract, was later affirmed in public session, but left people wondering why the secrecy and why the rush.
• In Milton, selectmen voted in December not to retain the town manager, but because of mounting opposition and town meeting approaching, the board reversed itself and voted to “reopen” negotiations. Two selectmen lost their re-election bids. It remains a mystery why the manager was let go.
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 in the Republic of Vermont. 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 enforcing. That is distressing to not only the Vermont Press Association but to readers of our member papers. Newsrooms respond to calls, letters and e-mails from readers complaining about being shut out of meetings or denied public records.
If government wants our trust, it must tell us what it’s doing. It must comply with its own laws.
Tom Kearney, a native Vermonter, is the managing editor of the award-winning Stowe Reporter. 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, which represents the interests of the 10 daily and four-dozen non-daily newspapers circulating in the state. Kearney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.