By Jim Condos
On Tuesday, March 5th, Vermonters elected their local government officials on Town Meeting Day. In November 2018, Vermonters chose their statewide officers and legislative representatives. In November 2016, Vermonters voted for the highest elected office in the United States.
Regardless of the difference in responsibilities of their positions, from local select boards to the governor to the president of the United States, and even to me as Vermont’s secretary of state, we all share one thing: a responsibility to uphold the public’s trust by being transparent and accountable in everything we do.
March 10-16 is Sunshine Week, a national celebration of access to public information and government transparency.
In my over 30 years of public service, as a city councilor, state senator, and as secretary of state, I have learned that public trust in our government is critical to our ability to achieve meaningful progress. Ensuring that government is open and transparent is the only way to build this trust with our Vermont communities.
Transparency isn’t just a buzzword, or something we should do as government officials. It is a requirement, enshrined in the Vermont Constitution under Article 6:
That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.
We must never forget that in government, our boss is the public.
Everything we do, and every record we make, ultimately belongs to them. Without transparency, Vermonters would not have the tools they need to hold public officials accountable.
Criticism or embarrassment are not valid reasons to draw the shades on information that the public has a right to see. In my office we operate every day as if the 625,000 Vermonters we serve are looking over our shoulder.
And, in case you were wondering, yes, the media is included as members of the public.
Not only do our hard working journalists have as much of a right to public records as any other individual, they also play an important role as the public’s watchdog, serving to inform and educate. Like any group of professionals, they are not perfect. The vast majority of journalists support letting the sun shine in on government. A free press is an essential partner in accountability through transparency.
Sadly, it is not hard to imagine a world in which local, state and federal governments act behind closed doors and with secrecy and impunity. There are many countries where this is the case. We must remain ever vigilant in our quest to keep the doors of government wide open and to ensure that government is working for the people and is at all times accountable.
Vermont’s open meeting and public record laws are not difficult to understand, even if sometimes burdensome for public officials; however, by adopting an open government mindset and foregoing the all too pervasive ‘deny first’ mentality, much of the work is already done. Unfortunately, not every government official shares this perspective, and oftentimes costly legal fees prevent ordinary Vermonters from pursuing access to the records that they are entitled to.
It’s also important to recognize that violations of Vermont’s transparency law aren’t always intentional. The majority of Vermont’s public officials are hard-working, and honest. However, intentional or not, unless we want public faith in our governmental institutions to erode further, we must do better.
So, for Sunshine Week this year I would like to acknowledge that from time to time, a few rain clouds may block the sun from shining down. However, as government officials, we have to do our part by throwing open those shades and turning on a few more lights when it gets dark.
We can’t sleep on transparency; good government demands it and the people we serve deserve it.
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 the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, The Boston Globe, Boston University and WBUR-Boston.