Tri-level sunshine

June 2, 2011

Centers of power, by their nature, seek to control and hide information, but civil societies and stable governments require transparency to create the bedrock of confidence among their citizens. Every government must commit itself to open dealings and renew that commitment on an ongoing basis. We have good news from the state of Vermont that this commitment has spread to the state and local level.

Transparency at the federal level got a big boost when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. Wikipedia says the Act “allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the¬†United States Government” and that it also “defines agency records subject to disclosure, outlines mandatory disclosure procedures and grants nine exemptions to the statute.”

Some have argued that Congress has carved out too many exemptions to the law, but there are many instances where the FOIA has been an effective tool for opening up the records of important government actions.¬† Without FOIA requests from deceased Bloomberg reporter Mark Pittman, for instance, the public would have never learned the details of the Federal Reserve’s facilities that funneled $3.3 trillion to financial institutions during the financial crisis.

When President Obama took office he urged the federal government to set a higher bar for openness. He issued a memorandum early in his administration on transparency that made the following points:

Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.

Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government.

These are very laudable goals. It is difficult to move government bureaucracies to a new approach. It will take many administrations but is certainly worth the effort.

Openness needs to happen at the state and local levels too. We have excellent news from Vermont. The Burlington Free Press reports:

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law Wednesday a bill that advocates say is Vermont’s most significant move toward open government in 35 years, giving long-lacking teeth to the law.

“For the first time in more than three decades, the public records law has taken a major step toward openness for Vermonters who want to know what their governments are doing,” said Maria Archangelo, president of the Vermont Press Association, which was among the groups pushing for the legislation.

The law, which takes effect July 1, requires judges to award attorney’s fees to those who were denied a request for government documents and prevail in court. It also creates a committee to identify and study the state’s 250-plus exemptions that have been added to the public records law over the years to see if they are necessary.

Government openness is coming. We should expect and demand this as free citizens. Hail to Vermont and every official who makes their government more open.

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