By Jim Condos
Trust in government is at an all-time low. As you can see playing out before our eyes in the news today, integrity is at a premium in times of crisis. Truth and transparency are necessary to effective leadership.
In Vermont, we take great pride in having a government that is more accessible and more trusted than those in other states, but over the years I have seen Americans, including Vermonters, grow increasingly frustrated with those times when they feel like their government is not operating openly and transparently.
Whether we’re discussing where to turn to for election information in the face of Russian attacks on our democracy, or which sources to listen to for updates on the emerging coronavirus outbreak, how can we expect people to heed our call to look to official government sources for information if the public’s trust in our institutions has been so badly damaged?
A lack of transparency can do real harm to our democracy and can rattle the public’s faith that our government officials are acting in their best interests.
The week of March 15th though the 21st is Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week is a national celebration of open government, and an opportunity for transparency advocates to join together to raise awareness around the importance of access to public information and what that means for our communities.
It is my philosophy that as public servants, we must operate as if 626,000 Vermonters are looking over our shoulder, and we must never forget that in government, our boss is the public.
Only by operating transparently, and making our government an open book, can we begin to rebuild public trust in our democratic institutions. This goes for all levels of government, from local planning commissions, to state agencies, all the way up to the office of the President.
Don’t get me wrong; I truly believe that the vast majority of government officials in Vermont are well meaning public servants, who want to serve our state and towns to the best of their abilities. Unfortunately, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bunch.
Vermont’s open government laws are not terribly difficult to understand. Vermont has been a national leader on so many other issues, so let’s take this opportunity to lead the country by showing that the doors of our government are open to the public, and that we have nothing to hide. Only then can we repair the broken relationship many Americans feel with the government that is supposed to be serving them.
Governments acting behind closed doors in secrecy do not generally have the best interest of the public in mind. We must always remember that we are a government of, by, and for the people.
Yes, that means the media too. A free press acts as our government watchdog, keeping the public informed and aware. Tyranny is built upon a foundation of secrecy, and any effort to attack the free press and keep the media in the dark is a dangerous, and slippery slope.
We rely on our partners in journalism to disseminate critical information to people that, as government officials, we simply have no ability to reach directly. It’s time to recognize the important role our journalists and media outlets play and end the attacks on our free press.
Unless we want public faith in our government institutions to erode even further, we must do better. If we expect the public to trust its government to provide the truth and lead in a time of crisis, we must earn that trust in the days, weeks, months, and years leading up to the crisis.
We need to acknowledge that over the past several years there have been some major blows to government transparency. So, for Sunshine Week this year, let’s turn the page, and work to ensure that our government is an open book.
Jim Condos is the secretary of state for Vermont. His office created guides to help citizens and public servants navigate the state’s Open Meeting Law and Public Records Act. They can be found here under the “Municipal” tab.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC include Hearst Connecticut Media Group, Paul and Ann Sagan, The Boston Globe, WBUR, Boston University and the Robertson Foundation.