Securing Public Records Access in the State of Vermont
The Vermont Public Records Law is a law that was enacted in 1976 for the purpose of granting residents of the state the right to request access to the public records and information of government agencies within the said state. To this point, the sections of the law outline the steps that Vermont residents must follow in order to request access to the public records of the government agencies and public institutions that operate within the state. Furthermore, the law also sets forth the punishments that individuals and government agencies alike stand to face should they be found to be in violation of the law with respect to the right of Vermont citizens to request access to public records.
How is a public agency defined under the law?
The Vermont Public Records Law defines a public agency as “any agency, board, department, commission, committee, branch, instrumentality, or authority of the State or any agency, board, committee, department, branch, instrumentality, commission, or authority of any political subdivision of the State.” Conversely, the law defines public records as “any written or recorded information, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which is produced or acquired in the course of public agency business. Individual salaries and benefits of and salary schedules relating to elected or appointed officials and employees of public agencies shall not be exempt from public inspection and copying.”
What are the rights of Vermont citizens under the law?
The rights that are afforded to citizens of the state of Vermont, as well as non-residents of the state, as it pertains to the accessibility of the records of public agencies within the said state include but are not limited to:
- The right to request access to public records from public agencies at all levels of government within the state of Vermont.
- The right to access public records that contain confidential information, permitting this such information is first redacted from the said records.
- The right to receive a response from a public agency concerning their approval or denial to access the public records of said agency within 2 days. However, this can be extended to 10 days under “unusual circumstances”.
- The right to appeal the decision of a public agency to deny their request to access the public records of said agency.
- The right to request access to public records without providing a line of reasoning regarding such access.
- The right not to be restricted in how they use the public records of a public agency that they have been permitted to access.
What public records are exempt from disclosure under the law?
While the Vermont Public Records Law grants both residents and non-residents of the state the right to request access to a wide variety of public records relating to the operations and functions of public agencies within the state, there are some exceptions. For example, health and educational records are exempt from disclosure under the law, in accordance with the provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) respectively. To this end, some further examples of public records that are exempt from access or disclosure under the law include:
- Collective bargaining information.
- Academic research.
- Trade secrets.
- Criminal investigations.
- Tax returns.
- Library records.
- Security information.
- Credit cards and bank account numbers.
- Current litigation records.
What are the penalties for violating the law?
While the sections established in the Vermont Public Records Law do not give the state attorney general the authority to impose penalties against agencies and individuals that fail to comply with the law, citizens of the state that have their rights violated under the law can still look to the state court system for justice. As such, the law states that any individual or agency that is found to be in violation of the law is subject to a misdemeanor, as well as a monetary fine of up to $500. What’s more, an individual that sells, gives away, discards, or destroys a public record with the authorization of the applicable public agency is also subject to a monetary penalty ranging from $50 to $1000 for each violation.
As the legal intention of the Vermont Public Records Law states that officers of public and government agencies are the servants and trustees of the people that reside within the state, the law gives these people the tools necessary to both review and criticize the decisions of said agencies. Additionally, the criminal and civil penalties that can be imposed against individuals that fail to comply with the law a particularly stringent when compared to similar legislation in other U.S. states. In this way, residents of Vermont can have the peace of mind that they will have an avenue for recourse should their right to access public records be infringed upon in any way.