Mostly sunny, but with a few clouds
This is the week when newspapers and secretaries of state across the United States remind anyone still listening that the public has a right to access government records. The government works for the people, after all. At least in theory, if not always in practice.
The name comes from the "Government in the Sunshine Act" of 1976, which affects the transparency of the federal government. However the "Sunshine Laws" term is often used for any law requiring the government to tell people what it's up to.
Generally speaking, the government has to tell you when and where meetings are held and what decisions are made, and supply you with copies of records.
Unfortunately, there are many exceptions to these requirements and not a lot of accountability if the government decides to ignore them.
For instance, your local select board can adjourn to an executive session and talk about how it wants to handle a pending lawsuit. To do this effectively some privacy is needed. Fair enough. But what constitutes a "legal matter" can be debated, and that debate isn't going to be settled by the Attorney General or the Secretary of State at 7 p.m. on a Monday night.
We'll allow that there are circumstances where the government should be granted some leeway in keeping its dealings secret, but these should be rare occurrences and not simply tools to shield public officials from embarrassment or accountability from wrongdoing.
In the past, the Banner has been flat-out denied access to public records for this very reason. It happened in one of the smaller towns south of Bennington. Somehow a contractor hired by the town used what appeared to be construction debris to fix up a dirt road. The result was that residents living along that road could expect a flat tire every other time they drove down it.
A Banner reporter asked for the name of the contractor and was told by a select board member that it wasn't being released.
The board member admitted that it was a public record and they had no right to deny the request, but since the contractor had been "decent" about the whole affair, the town wasn't going to embarrass the company.
Had the reporter been a little less green and the matter a little more weighty, it might have been pressed more, but this brings us to one of the cloudier parts of the Sunshine Laws: There's no teeth to them.
If a newspaper, or anyone, is wrongly denied access to a government record, they can file a complaint with Attorney General's Office or file a lawsuit. The former will result in a few letters being sent to the record denier; the latter costs money.
We shouldn't say there are no teeth when it comes to records laws. There are; they're just pointed in one direction. Government officials who release records they're not supposed to are in quite a bit hotter water than they would be for wrongly denying access.
Many officials walk on the side of caution and just say "no," or they make a person file a Freedom of Information Act request. If you're lucky, you won't be made to jump through too much red tape, just enough to cover the record holder's liability.
Let's not blame public officials too much for the dimness found in Sunshine Laws. Some of the problem involves simple logistics. There is no law on the books now preventing a person from requesting every single public record the government has. That's an extreme example, but not every government office has extra employees lying around who can spend all day digging up records.
Another problem to consider is that when we say "public" we may be thinking journalists and everyday citizens, but "public" also includes corporations that collect and sell data.
Balancing the needs of government with the needs and rights of the people it serves is a challenge. We'd say the local governments here are mostly on the side of transparency, but keeping them that way requires an informed and engaged public as well a strong local media presence.
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