Browning files public records request bill

MONTPELIER — A lawmaker who sued Gov. Peter Shumlin for documents related to his now-shelved single payer health care proposal has introduced legislation that would require the documents to be revealed in the future in similar situations.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, plans to introduce a bill to require greater access to public records under certain conditions and require judicial rulings on appeals of denials of access within a certain period of time. Browning said the legislation is needed based on her own legal case against the governor.

Browning, though she lost her case in superior court, maintains the administration inappropriately used executive privilege to prevent the release of information prior to his announcement on Dec. 17 that he was no longer pursuing a universal, publicly financed health care system because of its cost.

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Rep. Cynthia Browning

“My understanding is that executive privilege is intended to serve the public by ensuring that government officials can have thorough and confidential discussions of policy alternatives. It is not intended to protect those officials from inconvenience or embarrassment. If a person
claims to believe in the principles of transparency and accountability they must uphold them when it is hard as well as when it is easy,” Browning said in a release Friday. “I think that in this case executive privilege was used to conceal the politically difficult facts related to how much the single payer plan might cost and how much taxes might have to increase to
finance it. Ironically, this concealment did not serve the Governor well politically with either supporters or skeptics of the plan.”

Browning’s bill contains several provisions, including:

— If reports or documents have been shared by executive branch staff with people who are not part of that branch or working for it outside of the presence of the governor, executive privilege would be waived.

— If an official or public agency is required by law to produce a report on a date certain and it is not produced it and the law is not amended to extend the date, any records related to that report cannot be covered by executive privilege.

— If a public records request is denied by the government a Vermonter can appeal that denial to Superior Court. The current statute requires that such an appeal receive a judicial ruling “expeditiously,” and that such dockets should be handled before other cases, but the word
“expeditious” is not given a time definition. The bill would define “expeditious” as 45 calendar days after the last brief filed by the complainant.

Browning said the Shumlin administration shared documents and reports with some legislators, including House Speaker Shap Smith when the governor was not present and still claimed executive privilege. She argues that executive privilege should not be extended to a separate branch of government.

Shumlin, according to Act 48, was originally supposed to release a financing plan for his health care plan in January 2013 but did not. Browning said the Legislature did nothing to enforce that deadline and the administration was allowed to withhold information. Browning filed a public records request to the administration in March 2014 seeking documents and reports. The Legislature did not act to extend the governor’s deadline in law until May 2014, she said.

Browning said Vermonters should be able to obtain materials when a report is overdue, even when the Legislature does not try to enforce the law.

The 45-day timeline for judicial rulings is needed to speed up the process of records request, Browning said. She filed her case on Sept. 4, 2014, but the judge did not issue a ruling until Dec. 10 — a span of 14 weeks. Browning said the length “does not meet a common sense definition of expeditious.”

Read the proposed legislation below:

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