Friday, February 7, 2014

Burlington Public Records Report Visit #16

Proudly Serving Vermont Since 1875
Report #16 of On-site VT Public Records Review of Burlington’s Anti-Gun Proposals
Burlington City Hall, 2/4 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM
On Tuesday February 4th, Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs (VFSC) representatives Chris Bradley and Evan Hughes were again at Burlington City Hall for the continued review of Burlington documents and records that are responsive to the Vermont Public Records request that the VFSC originally filed on September 19th 2013.
As the City of Burlington’s search for records moves forward, each document must be individually reviewed by the City’s Legal Counsel so that they can make a determination of whether or not the document may be exempt, or they can otherwise make a determination as to whether or not portions of the document need to be redacted.
Initially, the City reported Exemptions and Redactions through a series of letters, but due to the sheer volume of exemptions and redactions being claimed by the City, the City began reporting these in an Excel spreadsheet which they referred to as the “Exemption Log”. Across December 2013 the City began automatically providing the VFSC with an updated version of this “Exemption Log” each time the VFSC went onsite, and as of January 3rd the City reported a total of 304 documents that were either exempted or which had portions redacted.
Subsequent to the January 3rd however, the City stopped automatically producing the Exemption Log on each of the VFSC’s visits. In response, on January 22nd the VFSC specifically requested this document to be ready for us on our next scheduled visit of January 27th. Even though this is an Excel spreadsheet that is known to exist; a document which is known to be a “work-in-progress”, a document that is obviously readily available to certain City staff and could have been easily given to the VFSC or sent to the VFSC as a simple email attachment, the City stonewalled producing this document across multiple verbal and written requests.
As a result of Tuesday’s meeting, the City has finally produced an updated “Exemption Log”, 9 business days after it was specifically requested – so much for honoring the letter and intent of Vermont’s Public Records Law. Per statute that document should have been immediately produced, but given that the number of exempted and redacted documents has now swollen to 535 documents, perhaps there is another reason for this delay.
As previously suggested, the VFSC believed that the reason for this was that the City was purposefully delaying making any decisions on “difficult” documents, and we therefore asked some very pointed questions of City Attorney Eileen Blackwood.
What the VFSC discovered is that as the City progresses through the search for responsive documents, they make an initial determination as to whether or not the document may be exempt, and in many, many cases this is very easy. For example: Any one of a large number of citizen emails to various City officials voicing their opposition to the proposed Charter Changes (there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of those). If there is no question that it is NOT exempt, then they immediately release. However if there is any question about the document, the City sets it aside into a pile that then waits to be reviewed in greater detail at some nebulous point in the future. While City Attorney Blackwood did acknowledge that this is their strategy, she specifically declined to respond to how big the “set-aside” pile was, and opined that she didn’t think she had to provide that information.
So, while the City can make a show of producing documents, a great many of these documents are “fluff”, with the City knowingly delaying the time and expense of making their final determination.
The bottom line is that there are now 535 documents which the public is not allowed to see; with all 535 documents being the result of what is theoretically supposed to be a fully “open” process. While 535 “secret” documents is a staggering number, the VFSC is absolutely certain that there will be more as the City wades into the results of the expanded search (the VFSC previously had to point out to the City that their initial searches were seriously flawed as was previously reported).
Just what is it in these 535 documents that MUST be kept secret? We already know that they purposefully set about to bypass not one but two State Statutes. We already know that the Charter Change Committee was heavily influenced by both in state and out-of-state groups. We already know that the Charter Change Committee purposefully only sought input from specific groups while purposefully excluding others, and that they specifically scheduled their meetings so as to purposefully exclude working citizens that might otherwise come to their meetings so that they could weigh in on what they referred to as the “gun issue”.
The Federation’s effort in Burlington will continue until we are satisfied that we have done more than just due diligence such that we can be fully confident that we have uncovered all there is to know and documented same.
Chris Bradley & Evan Hughes