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Shumlin seeks “teeth” in public records law

January 14, 2011

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

BENNINGTON – Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislative leaders outlined a plan Friday they said will ensure public access to government documents and workings remains open.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Shumlin, in a Friday afternoon press conference, said the proposed legislation outlined Friday would give the state’s public records law more “teeth” by creating a state office within the Secretary of State’s office to enforce it. Additionally, people who are wrongly denied public records could recoup attorney’s fees if they use the legal system to obtain the records. Current law allows judges to award the cost of attorney’s fees, but in many cases they do not.

“I have been consistently clear in my strong support of transparency in government,” Shumlin said. “Every legitimate request by the public for information should be met in a timely, open manner.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, and House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, and other lawmaker stook part in the press conference, the first major show of unity between the new Democratic administration and the Democratic-led Legislature.

Smith said lawmakers are on board with creating a more open state government.

“At the core of Vermont democracy is our honest, accessible, and transparent government,” he said. “State government is at its best when Vermonters are engaged participants and partners in the process. Today we renew that commitment.”

The proposed plan will require greater awareness across state government, particularly in the executive branch, according to Shumlin. Additional training will be provided to state employees so proper decisions regarding records requests are made.

“The single biggest complaint we’ve heard is not that the law as written doesn’t go far enough,” Shumlin said. “It’s that in some cases state employees have not complied with the spirit or letter of the law as written, often due to inadequate training.”

Shumlin said his office is set to review the current public records law within the next week and provide instruction to his full cabinet on compliance. The office will also hold training sessions for all public records officers across state government within the next two months, according to Shumlin. And, he said, within five months, records officers must follow up on their in-office training.

Additionally, the administration will look to improve and speed up the public records process, Shumlin said.

The plan calls for new legislation, too. Shumlin said officials have been working with lawmakers to create a new public records bill to ensure the state follows the letter of the law in providing public information. A key provisions calls for a designated state office with the authority to review disputed public records requests and issue binding orders.

The legislation calls for the of review more than 200 exemption that exist in the current law, elimination of search time fees for requests that take less than two hours to compile, placing the burden on the state to prove that a denial is warranted, and presuming a person who appeals a denial and wins is entitled to attorney’s fees.

“The combination of administration training and legislative changes should ensure that almost all requests for state documents are handled promptly and at no charge to the public, other than the cost of state-worker time,” Shumlin said. “And the very small number of requests that could cost taxpayers inordinate sums will be handled in a different – but fair — manner.”

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