Time and again, as we track the progress of boards and commissions around Washington County and the state, the media continue to be amazed at how naive elected officials often are when it comes to understanding the state’s laws on open meetings and public records.
Democracy works best when government is transparent. The ultimate boss is the public, and the actions of an informed and conscientious body provide credible results. Secrecy, or even just the elimination of public input, always raises more questions and allows for certain aspersions to be cast.
Secretary of State James Condos is in the midst of his second statewide Transparency Tour. He is scheduling forums at locations around Vermont where he aims to answer basic questions about what the public has a right to know when it comes to local government.
During an interview on “City Room,” a public access show hosted by Times Argus Editor Steven Pappas, Condos discussed how his first tour yielded larger audiences of elected officials and members of the public. In some communities, where there were hot-button transparency issues, as in St. Johnsbury, scores of residents turned out seeking answers. This time around, Condos said, attendance has been more meager even though education needs to be ongoing; there is always a new crop of elected officials.
Condos’ message is clear: “The state’s open meeting and public records laws are some of our most important because they allow us direct access to the decisions that affect us.” Understanding these laws, he maintains, makes everyone a better citizen.
In his presentation, Condos walks through the state constitution and the state statutes. He defines “meeting,” “quorum,” “public body,” “discussing business” and “taking action.” He also highlights to whom and when the open meeting law does not apply. But, most importantly, he walks officials, the public and the media through how meetings are warned, how the public has input, how meeting minutes are reported, and the process for executive sessions, as well as the penalties — financial and professional — for ignoring these laws.
Condos, a former legislator and municipal official in South Burlington, has made a point of studying the pitfalls and has come to appreciate the process, using the full force of his office to ensure openness. “It is at the heart of democracy,” he said.
“In Vermont, the people rule, sometimes directly, sometimes through elected or appointed representatives, but always with the benefit of public scrutiny,” Condos stated in his presentation.
Condos is correct. And while he strives to make government across Vermont as functional as it should be, he knows the media want more exemptions lifted, stronger legislation and even more severe ramifications for abusers.
When asked if Vermont’s laws were having an effect on the “good ol’ boy” network that often mires government bodies in all corners of Vermont, Condos acknowledged it was at least “leveling the playing field.”
But there is still much work to be done. Condos urges more members of the public to be engaged and praises the media for kicking over stones and challenging authority as the eyes and ears of the public.
At a time in our history when more people distrust government, doesn’t it make the most sense to be more mindful of the actions being taken and to participate in the discussions being had?
The media will continue to watch, but the public must, too. Attend meetings. If you can’t attend, watch them on public access (or stream these meetings online through your public access station). It holds us all accountable and makes us all model citizens.
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