- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - A succession of state officials asked a legislative committee on Friday to maintain or enhance the current level of government secrecy for fear, as one put it, of looking like “a dope.”

Ronald Shems, chairman of the Vermont Natural Resources Board, said he has practiced as a lawyer before its counterpart in Maine, where he said board members deliberate in public, which Vermont’s board doesn’t do.

He said discussion is inhibited in Maine because commissioners ask themselves “Am I going to look like a dope?” for raising a certain question.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, asked Human Rights Commission executive director Karen Richards how the public can know the commission is doing its job given its confidentiality rules.

Richards responded, “The way the process is set up, you probably would not know that.” She said if a person bringing a discrimination complaint to the commission signed a release to allow dissemination of information, “we would consider that.”

The comments came during a meeting of the Public Records Legislative Study Committee, which has been looking at the more than 200 exemptions to the presumption of public access to government records scattered through Vermont’s laws to see which are necessary, outdated or in need of change.

Committee members and some of the people testifying agreed the job may be growing with the recent discovery that many exemptions from disclosure are not embedded in law, but are contained in rules, policies and procedures issued by executive branch agencies.

“Nobody’s able to tell us how many exemptions there really are and what they’re being applied to,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Two topics that came up in Friday’s discussion were how broad or narrow exemptions should be and whether some exemptions are redundant.

Medical records were already exempt from public access when pharmacists insisted they be given a special exemption from disclosure when they dispense lethal drugs under the aid-in-dying bill lawmakers passed in 2013, Ayer said.

Gilbert zeroed in on a section of the law allowing government officials to block public access when records are tied to pending lawsuits. Because of litigation in the case of MacAdam Mason, the 39-year-old Thetford man who died after being hit with a stun gun by Vermont State Police in 2012, the public still can’t have access to basic information about the case, he said.

“You can’t have a record of even how many police responded to the incident, how many cruisers responded,” Gilbert said. He argued that there is no need for such an exemption to the public records law because if someone sees a need to keep information in a lawsuit secret, they can ask the judge for an order sealing it.

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