House gives preliminary approval on internal document bill

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(Host) The Vermont House has given its preliminary approval to legislation that makes it harder for the executive branch of government to withhold internal policy documents from the public.

Backers of the bill say the proposal will shed light on the deliberations of state government but opponents argue it will curtail a wide discussion of issues by the governor’s office.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The legislation is the result of a decision made by the Agency of Natural Resources not to turn over hundreds of documents to the Conservation Law Foundation concerning a lack of enforcement of storm water regulations.

The Agency said it had the authority to deny the request by claiming that there’s a “deliberative process” exemption to the state’s open records law.

Essentially, the Douglas Administration claimed that it would be detrimental to the operations of state government if all internal agency discussions and deliberations had to be released to the public.

A majority of House members disagreed and supported the legislation by a vote of 82 to 49.

East Montpelier Rep. Tony Klein is the lead sponsor of the bill.

(Klein) “Our system of government is based upon openness and accountability. Fear is the greatest threat to democracy. Fear is the greatest threat to freedom.”

(Kinzel) Calais Rep. Janet Ancel said the bill is needed to provide greater accountability in government:

(Ancel) “This is a bill about open government. This General Assembly has protected the public’s right of access and demanded accountability for at least the last three decades. It’s not surprising that this protection has come from the legislative branch. This is the branch of government that is closest to the people and that in fact operates most openly.”

(Kinzel) Barre Town Rep. Tom Koch urged members not to support the bill because he feels it will discourage debate within the Administration.

(Koch) “I oppose this amendment and this bill because I think it will have a chilling and negative effect upon essential decision making in our executive branch.”

(Kinzel) Pittsford Rep. Peg Flory opposed the bill because she feels it’s wrong to single out the executive branch of government in this way:

(Flory) “What is more frustrating to me is we in this body are attempting to hold the executive branch to a different standard, a much different standard than we ourselves are allowing ourselves to be held to.”

(Kinzel) The measure will come up for final approval in the House on Tuesday. Rep. Flory says she’ll offer an amendment to have the legislation apply to all levels of government including the Legislature and local government bodies.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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