The sun is shining in Vermont–literally and figuratively–during “Sunshine Week…a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.” CLF is celebrating Sunshine Week by supporting two major government transparency reforms making their way through the Vermont legislature.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION IN ENVIRONMENTAL ENFORCEMENT H.258
For more than a decade, CLF has been trying to shine a light on the behind-closed-door process for environmental enforcement in Vermont and to give affected members of the public a voice in the process. In a 2008 case brought by CLF, the Vermont Environmental Court ruled that Vermont’s enforcement procedures were unlawfully depriving affected members of the public from notice of and an opportunity to comment on the backroom deals regulators strike with polluters before those deals get approved by the courts. EPA subsequently agreed with this assessment. It has provided the state with guidance on how to amend state laws to protect the public’s right to know about and participate in proceedings against polluters who damage our shared natural resources through their illegal activity.
This week, CLF’s efforts took a major step forward when the Vermont House Natural Resources and Energy Committee gave unanimous support to a bill proposed by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources-H.258. Though not perfect, the bill goes a long way toward giving citizens who have suffered the effects of illegal pollution a role in the enforcement process. Kudos to reporters Shay Totten at 7 Days (his stories are here and here) and Candy Page at the Burlington Free Press (her coverage here) for bringing this story the attention it deserves. In a positive editorial today, the Free Press editorial board wrote:
An agreement between the state and polluters sealed behind closed doors might be more efficient, but that efficiency comes at the expense of transparency and true accountability.
The bill to open all environmental violation settlements to public scrutiny and challenge before final approval once again shows there’s much about government that can be fixed by increasing openness.
A vote by the full House is scheduled on Tuesday of this week. Show your support for greater openness and public participation by contacting your local Vermont representative and them to vote for H.258.
STRENGTHENING VERMONT’S FREEDOM OF INFORMATION LAW H.73
CLF is also pleased to be working in a coalition of groups seeking to strengthen Vermont’s Freedom of Information laws. CLF, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, the Vermont State Employees Association, the Vermont Press Association, and others committed to open government testified in support of H.73. The bill would strengthen citizen enforcement of public records laws in cases where government officials unlawfully prevent the public from seeing public documents. The most important feature of the bill would ensure that those unlawfully denied access to records will recover their attorney’s fees when they successfully argue in court that the government was wrong to deny access. This would be a major deterrent to government secrecy. The bill also ensures that most private contractors performing governmental functions also have to comply with public access laws. The ACLU has been a leader on this important effort and its full summary of the bill’s open-government reform can be found here.
We cannot solve Vermont’s environmental problems without effective enforcement of our environmental laws, and we will not have effective enforcement without greater government transparency. Let the sun shine!