It’s Sunshine Week, a national celebration of the citizens’ right to know about their government.
In the past, we’ve groused about the hundreds of exemptions in Vermont’s public records law, mysterious firing of coaches, obvious conflicts of interest, and the fact that no one actually enforces state laws on open meetings and public records.
That seems so quaint in this era of the Trump presidency, wacko far-right propaganda, and the fact that Russia tried mightily to interfere with our elections.
Down here on the ground floor of community journalism, we really can’t do much about the fact that President Trump has lied more than 9,000 times in office, or about dangerous Russian influence.
But we can stand up for the foundation of our American democracy: Informed voters make good decisions.
We can stand up for openness and truth.
We can help lead the local conversations about drug use and mental health, about the dangers of avoiding vaccinations, about the threats posed by climate change, about development patterns, about noisy fighter jets.
Sometimes, that work is not easy. Sometimes, push comes to shove.
That’s why we objected when school officials blocked normal news coverage of raising a Black Lives Matter flag at South Burlington High School on Feb. 1, in conjunction with Black History Month.
Initially, news reporters and photographers were told they’d have to stand on the opposite side of Dorset Street from the school, unable to hear anything that was being said. That ignores the fact that the sidewalk in front of the school is public property. Further, snowplows were parked across all entry points for vehicles at the school, and police were stationed on Dorset Street. Apparently, school officials feared some community residents would object to the ceremony.
In fact, there were no visible protests of any kind, and the press restrictions were needless. If school officials want to ignore the First Amendment, it would be nice to have at least a discussion.
“It’s important for the community to understand how South Burlington High School has advanced from the ‘Rebel’ days and show your focus on diversity and understanding,” our newspapers wrote in an email to the school principal. “This is a great story for South Burlington High School, but we can’t report it if we can’t see it.”
In Shelburne, the Shelburne News pressed the town ethics committee on its compliance with the state open meeting law, and its claim that it can hold “deliberative sessions” in person, by phone, or electronically until it offers a written decision. That time period has no limit.
“It’s giving us the opportunity to make decisions without the public looking over our shoulders,” committee chair Lee Suskin said. Which, of course, is why the open meeting law was enacted in the first place.
At our newspaper in Stowe, when the police chief stopped disclosing routine information because he didn’t like the tone of voice on our police blotter, we pushed back. In a single week, we filed 55 public-records requests, seeking information that should be disclosed routinely but was being withheld. Police were legally obliged to respond to all 55 of those requests.
And we did considerably more than that, which earned the Stowe Reporter first place in the prestigious right-to-know category of the New England Newspaper and Press Association awards, a contest with more than 3,000 entries from 450 newspapers.
Here’s what the contest judge said: “In a series of articles, editorials and opinion columns, the Stowe Reporter explained the importance of printing police logs, and how frequent communication with the police department is in the public’s interest. Rather than negotiating behind the scenes or simply accepting the chief’s decision to limit communication with its newsroom, the Stowe Reporter instead informed its readers of the information at stake and why it was worth the fight.”
Why does a police blotter matter? We think you have a right to know if there’s been a string of home burglaries in your neighborhood, or if a driver in your child’s car-pool rotation just got popped for drunken driving, or if a public official has been in a bar brawl.
Our beefs in South Burlington and Stowe are small potatoes compared to the war for truthfulness at the federal level. But these are the kinds of issues we cover, and they’re the places where we can take a stand.
We think it’s crucial for every citizen who believes in democracy to stand up for what’s right, to call a lie a lie, to demand openness and accountability from their public officials.
Make no mistake: The fundamentals of democracy are being pummeled by liars, fact-benders, opportunists and blowhards who care only about their own power and egos.
And in the long run, if they win, we’re done as a nation.
That’s why Sunshine Week is important.