Government Transparency Update: Public Records Requests

On Thursday, the Senate Government Operations Committee heard from a number of witnesses on the topic of public records. Anne Galloway (Editor, VT Digger) started off the afternoon with a pretty damning testimony about the current state of public records in Vermont. Read full testimony…

"Vermont's journalism community, including the Vermont Journalism Alliance, the Vermont Press Association, the Vermont Association of Broadcasters, with support from the national Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press is calling on the Vermont Legislature to defend the First Amendment by reinforcing a precedent set by the Vermont Supreme Court that protects the public's right to inspect records.
People have suffered abuses at the hands of state government, and over and over again the Vermont Attorney General's response is to block access to records regardless. The result? Corruption in state government continues unabated."

Galloway also proposed draft language to correct the current deficiencies in Vermont’s public records law.

Mathew Roy (News Editor, Seven Days) followed Galloway, saying that people seeking public records often pay hefty fees and receive heavily redacted documents. Read more…

"Often, news organizations wind up paying fees for staff to produce records. What this often means is we must pay for attorneys to extensively redact documents — sometimes blacking out page after page after page — based on their determination that the information is covered by one of the myriad exemptions to Vermont’s public records law. For some, the rule of thumb seems to be, If in doubt, black it out. If we disagree with their decision, our only recourse is to appeal to the very agency that just issued the decision — and then hire a lawyer and sue. And records cases can be awfully expensive. I know. Seven Days had the audacity to ask for records when a public school administrator left his job in 2018. As a result of that request, the school district that we sought the records from sued the newspaper. We eventually won in Vermont Supreme Court, but we’re out $7,500 in legal costs."

Mike Smith, Commissioner of the Agency of Human Services, provided testimony to the committee about compliance with and exemptions to public records requests, specifically related to DMV’s adherence to the Driver Privacy and Protection Act (DPPA).

"While Vermont’s public records laws keep most state records open for public inspection, DPPA is an exception. Federal law says certain information may not be given out but is silent on the release of other information not defined as personal information. Whereas the federal law does not address the privacy of non-personal information, the state law takes over and says we must provide access to that information."

Scott Woodward, a select board member from Pomfret also testified on public records, arguing that citizens should not pay the price for the government’s antiquated recordkeeping systems.

"Would it be fair and appropriate to charge for preparation costs where the public entity does not have efficient record keeping practices? The short answer is no. There are practical record-keeping considerations to take into account if preparation costs are charged to a person requesting public records. While my experience is limited to Pomfret, I suspect many towns in Vermont do not have efficient record-keeping practices. I know this to be true in Pomfret."

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