MONTPELIER, Vt. – Vermont journalists and open government advocates are being urged to expand their use of sunshine laws to obtain public records, with a pair of experts calling such reporting essential to keeping tabs on how taxpayer money is being spent.

The digital age has made it easier to obtain minutes of city council meetings, restaurant inspection records and dozens of other kinds of public records, and it’s up to citizens, not just journalists, to exercise their right to obtain information from City Hall, the Statehouse and other government entities, they told about 40 people at a seminar hosted by the Vermont Press Association on Friday.

“This isn’t about selling papers. This is about democracy,” said David Cuillier, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ freedom of information committee. “If we have secret government, we might as well throw in the towel.”

The event, co-sponsored by the Vermont Coalition for Open Government, was centered around the visit by Cuillier, who is on a 45-day tour aimed at boosting use of public records requests by the news media and others.

Vermont, in particular, is lax on providing the tools for such reporting, Vermont Press Association Executive Director Michael Donoghue told the group.

The state’s right-to-know law has 231 exemptions in it, and no enforcer, official or ombudsman to go to when public officials violate it, he said.

“It’s the only law in Vermont that I know of that has nobody enforcing what the Legislature has passed,” said Donoghue.

Retired newspaper executive Doug Clifton, director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said the cost of going to court to obtain records discourages people from challenging public records denials.

But newspaper companies, battered by Internet competition for advertising and readers, don’t have the deep pockets they once did, so citizens must be more active in filing information requests, he said.


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