By Rick Rayfield
The Guide to Open Meetings published online and in print by Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos states, "One important foundation of openness in Vermont is the ‘Right to Know’ laws, including those related to open meetings and public records. Together they are the most important public laws we have because they allow us direct access to the decisions that affect us." The statement is clear. Open meetings are not “one of” the most important public laws. They are “the most important public laws.”
Is this obscure? I think not. Every board or select board member, every listers’ public grievance hearing, every appeal to the Board of Civil Authority or the Board of Abatement in every town, every school board, every set of trustees of public entities – hospitals, libraries, cemeteries – every court is required to be as open and transparent as possible so that fairness in governance can be observed by every citizen in our democracy. Politics is local. Governance is local.
Is this unusual? Vermont is one of the 50 states with an Open Meeting Law. The oldest is Alabama’s enacted in 1915. By 1977, only New York, Mississippi and West Virginia did not have Open Meeting Laws. The Federal Open Meeting Act (aka Government in the Sunshine Act) 5 U.S.C. § 552b, was passed in 1976. (The U.S. Freedom of Information Act dates to 1966, as an amendment to a 1946 public information act. All 50 states have their own Freedom of Information legislation, accessible state by state at www.foiadvocates.com/records.html.)
The openness provided by the Vermont Open Meeting Law encourages fairness and adherence to the law at the most local levels right up through to statewide governing bodies. Instead of corruption, favoritism, nepotism, prejudice, irrationality, unconstitutional action and other injustice creeping into government at low levels, we have transparency in our government at every level. From their first responsibilities in local government, public servants and politicians function in an environment of observability. Our courts also should operate as publicly as possible. The press plays a huge historic role in ferreting out injustice and unfairness, largely by publicizing and informing and providing a forum for discussion. But every citizen must be vigilant to protect our liberty which is based on the equality of all citizens in rights and standing before the law. The Open Meeting Law and laws relating to public records – including the minutes of meetings of public boards – give every citizen the right and responsibility to guard and protect democracy and their own welfare.
When I work in academic research labs, we pride ourselves in publishing our discoveries. In contrast, I recently did some consulting research work involving my expertise in cat and dog behavior for a huge global manufacturer. The goals were to improve a nutritional product, with better acceptance, with less environmental impact, and better profit. Awesome. Except we kept our knowledge to ourselves. Trade secrets. Perfectly legal. But no research papers were published. No peer review. No stimulating discussions with other researchers. No competition to hire employees whose value was as hidden as the research results. It was so interesting that, despite the shroud of secrecy, I stuck with it. But the lack of openness bothered me. If I had been able to discuss it openly or publish the work, the advances might have been wider than just for the company’s bottom line.
Sometimes secrecy and confidentiality are needed. But often secrecy and privacy have not served us. Has anyone had a family secret finally revealed that would have been better aired earlier? Have you ever bought something the seller knew was defective? Have you ever wondered why someone else got the job or promotion instead of you? Sure, the value of discretion and privacy exists. But the Open Meeting Law has been tested and approved as the way to best ensure democratic justice and fairness at the individual level. That’s democracy. It is a huge responsibility, and so easy to slip into cliques, side conversations, rumors and hearsay. It is human nature to seek some privacy from public judgment.
The Open Meeting Law is fairly simple and its goal is preventative, not punitive. When it comes to government from town to country, we are importantly served by and should personally promote the Open Meeting Law. Boards need to act officially and openly and only invoke secrecy within the narrow confines allowed by the Open Meeting Law.
Rick Rayfield, justice of the peace
(Board of Civil Authority, Board of Abatement)