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Updated Public Records Database Could Improve Government Transparency

A stack of paperwork on a table next to an open laptop computer.
On Monday, the Agency of Administration rolled out an update to its Public Records Database.

A new reporting system could help improve Vermonters’ access to public records.

The public is entitled to access any written or recorded information created by government bodies — things like contracts, meeting minutes and highway crash statistics. That right is codified in Vermont’s Public Records Act. But it’s hard to know whether agencies are complying with the law, and whether the law itself is effective.

On Monday, the Agency of Administration rolled out an update to its Public Records Database designed to help shed light on these questions.

While the Agency has long maintained an online database of public records requests received by agencies and departments across the state, “not every agency and department realized the database was there,” said Secretary Susanne Young, “and not every agency and department was using it.”

Young said the new technology will make it easier for her agency to make sure all state entities document their public records requests in a uniform manner. According to Young, the agency also plans to analyze the data it collects, reviewing trends among agencies or individuals in response times, and use of exemptions.

Many in Vermont have complained the act’s nearly 240 exemptions make it easy for agencies to avoid scrutiny.

“I think if we see extensive use of a particular exemption by a particular department that may not make sense, then we might look at that as an opportunity to ask some questions and do some training, “ said Young.

The database changes came about after lawmakers passed legislation requiring the Agency of Administration to update and maintain the public records request system, which was first implemented in 2006.

A new directive from the Secretary will also require all state agencies and departments to update the database quarterly — a directive Young’s Chief Performance Officer, Sue Zeller, said will be bolstered by reminders the new system will send to staff.

“Our key concerns are timely answering to meet statutory requirements, overuse of exemption, the total time taken between when the request was made and when it finally gets entered into the system,” Zeller said, “and making sure people go back and close their requests and put final results in.”

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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