The State Must Keep Us Posted

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tom-kearneyBy Tom Kearney

We’re flinging billions of dollars into the economy these days — to banks, insurance companies, automakers, the banks again.

Figuring out just where the money went, and how it was used, has been difficult. In part, that’s because the money is going to private companies that have never had to give a full public explanation of how they use money. But it’s also partly because the federal officials dealing with these companies aren’t used to explaining things publicly, either.

The people’s right to know has taken a thrashing through the eight years of the Bush administration, and our systems for finding out what the federal government does, and why, have all but imploded.

Things need to be different in Vermont, as the governor and Legislature tackle the economic downturn’s huge impact on state revenues.

As they make tough decisions, state officials need to make sure we know what they’re doing, and what the effects will be.


Let’s ask for some resolutions:

• No shifting employees quietly from one department to another, or one classification to another.

• No sneaking riders into unrelated bills for pet projects, or tax loopholes, or the countless other ways an influential state official can do favors.

• Straight talk about the effects of every decision. State government is like a plate of Jell-O; poke it in one place, and it bulges somewhere else. We want to know the causes and the effects, who’s being helped and who’s being hurt. And, it would be nice if we knew what those people think about it.

• A sincere effort. Shap Smith, the new House speaker, should help a lot in this area; he’s a pragmatist, not a partisan hand-fighter like Senate President Peter Shumlin, and he doesn’t send in solutions by parachute, like Gov. Jim Douglas. Cut the posturing, bag the political agendas, don’t worry who gets the credit. Just negotiate for the good of the state. Do your best for all of us.

• Put everything on the table.

For instance, state leaders have been nibbling around the edges of the school-cost problem for years, without really confronting a key problem: Too many school districts, too many schools, and so many administrators that it’s hard to find new ones. If education is a state responsibility — and the Vermont Constitution says it is — then address it on a statewide basis. Yes, it’s great to have the town school as a centerpiece for community identity, but bigger regional schools can offer stronger curriculum, more opportunities for students, and considerably more operating efficiency.

For another, the state payroll is simply bigger than it needs to be, based on employment levels in other states. If Vermont had as many employees per resident as, say, Maine, it could save more than $150 million a year. But no one’s willing to start that discussion.

So, good luck to the governor and the Legislature. Keep us posted on how it’s going. Really.

•••

While the Legislature waits for the financial picture to become less murky, there should be time for it to make sure we get to know what we should about our government’s work.

• The Legislature should be looking at the more than 200 exemptions in the state right-to-know laws, and deciding if they’re still needed — if they ever were. Initially, the state’s right-to-know law had only a couple of dozen exceptions, covering things like labor negotiations and land-buying deals — things that would get all fouled up if people knew all about them.

So, how did 200 exemptions get written into law? It’s hard to tell. A legislative study didn’t cast much light, and state leaders decided to look at 20 or 30 a year to see if they’re needed. Now would be a good time to get back to that job.

• Technology can be a friend or foe of the right to know. We need to steer it in our favor.

I think every state should have a law, requiring that easy public access to public information be a key part of planning any computer system or software package. Now, technology decisions are generally based on what the state agency needs, not on what the public’s entitled to know. That would be easy to change, if the law only required it.

Then, there’s e-mail. E-mail communications among public officials are generally considered public in Vermont, and public officials are cautioned against conducting business via e-mail.

However, that’s in general. There are some mighty big wrinkles.

First, the Legislature has a policy of deleting e-mails after 90 days. Therefore, in 2008, when a teacher requested records of communication concerning a school funding bill, none were available. This is an outmoded policy, based on server space. Space should not really be an issue anymore, and this rule needs to be updated.

Second, the Legislative Council is also arguing that communication between constituents and individual lawmakers are not open records and that making them public could infringe upon the right of constituents to petition their government. This needs to be sorted out; it runs counter to the Legislature’s own view of public accountability.

Third, there was a really bad decision in a Burlington case in 2008. Here’s the case: Burlington’s city attorney, a man, oversees a consultant, a woman, who’s been hired to help rewrite the zoning laws. The project doesn’t go well. The lawyer and consultant develop a close personal relationship.

At the same time, the city’s interim administrator — who works with the committee that oversees the city attorney contract — also develops a close personal relationship with the lawyer.

The details of these relationships, and their built-in conflicts of interest, are all told in hundreds of e-mails the three people sent back and forth, using their city government e-mail accounts. The e-mails are stored on the city government’s servers.

The Burlington Free Press wanted to know what was in those e-mails, and what they said about how the city government was functioning. The city stonewalled, and the newspaper sued. A judge ruled the newspaper was right, but will get none of the e-mails because he didn’t think they contained any news.

That’s a reach. The e-mails should be public records, and news outlets — not a judge — should decide what news is. The Legislature should change the law to reflect that.

 

Tom Kearney is managing editor of the Stowe Reporter. E-mail him at news@stowereporter.com.

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