Vital records tradition may fall victim to security concerns

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(Host) A cherished Town Meeting tradition may fall victim to concerns about homeland security.

A new federal law will prohibit towns from publishing vital records.

These are the lists of births, deaths and marriages that are often published in town reports.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Go into any Town Meeting next week, and you’ll find residents quickly thumbing through the town report. It’s the booklet that lays out the town and school budgets, and gives the report from the local fire department. One section is studied very carefully – the annual list of births, deaths and marriages.

(Markowitz) “It’s a gossipy area. People like to know what’s happening with their neighbors. And, in fact, in many communities that’s how you know when someone has passed away.”

(Dillon) Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz says there’s more at stake than neighbors knowing who died and who was born.

She says the new federal law – it’s called the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, will shut down needed information.

For example, Markowitz points out that medical researchers use the vital records kept by town clerks to look for unusual outbreaks of disease.

(Markowitz) “There’s a case in Vermont involving one of our smaller communities where a doctor in this town noticed that two patients who lived on the same road came down with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is really pretty rare. And then he did some research and saw that in that community five of the residents had already died.”

(Dillon) Congress approved the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act two years ago. The lawmakers were concerned that criminals or terrorists could use vital records to obtain false identification.

Fourteen states, including Vermont, now keep the records open. The law will require town and county clerks to keep the vital statistics in a secure location. Town clerks will not be allowed to store records in their home. And the information will no longer be readily available to the public.

In Greensboro, Town Clerk Bridget Collier says the new law is an overreaction.

(Collier) “This is just another freedom that we consider important. We consider access to public records important, not just because of the information but because it allows us to keep track of what’s going on. And this is another attempt to make information less available.”

(Dillon) Collier says Greensboro may have to build a new vault to keep the records secure. Other requirements include security clearances for people who deal with the records.

Secretary of State Markowitz says the law amounts to an expensive un-funded mandate from Washington.

(Markowitz) “One of the big problems with this law is that it didn’t take into account the smaller, rural states, particularly New England states, where we still keep a lot of this information town by town.”

(Dillon) The regulations to implement the law should be drafted by the end of the summer. States will have two years after that to comply.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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