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Vermont State Police scandal underlies need for more light on law enforcement practices

By Aki Soga, editorial page editor, Burlington Free Press

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin had good reason to ask lawmakers earlier this month to take up legislation to improve public access to criminal investigation files.

The governor has good reason to push for increased transparency to better enable the public to keep an eye on how members of law enforcement agencies go about their jobs.

The state is still wracked by a scandal involving a Vermont State Police sergeant who was caught collecting overtime pay for hours he never worked. The state says he defrauded taxpayers of nearly $213,000 over six years and wrote nearly 1,000 fake traffic tickets as part of his deceit.

The sergeant, who was also a patrol commander, resigned after prosecutors began investigating the case and he recently pleaded guilty to two felony counts of false claims and two counts of neglect of duty.

A push for more openness also is in line with the public posture taken by Shumlin, who often calls himself the “transparency governor.”

In the 2010 gubernatorial race, the Free Press made a candidate’s position on open government the top test for the paper’s endorsement. The editorial board endorsed Shumlin who emerged as the most promising candidate in terms of transparency, both in the crowded Democratic primary and in the general election.

Government transparency and accountability has been a major focus of the Free Press editorial page for more than three years. The paper has published hundreds of editorials pointing out efforts to close off government to public scrutiny and calling on elected officials to take action to improve public access.

Only by keeping government open to the public can the people make sure public officials are held accountable.

Vermont has a long ways to go. Even in a state known for town meetings, the annual exercise in grassroots democracy, concern for privacy too often trumps the need for accountability. The state’s open record law has more than 200 exemptions — no one is sure of the exact number — meaning anyone in government truly intent on withholding public information can find a plausible excuse to do so.

But there also are welcome signs of a cultural shift in Vermont politics.

Today, transparency is part of the political vernacular in Vermont. Many candidates — especially for major offices — present their open government credentials without being asked. Politicians are beginning to understand they will be called upon to publicly explain themselves if they move to close off government from the people.

Vermont will continue to move toward a more open government, but only so long as the public — and journalists — continue to demand transparency.