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Editorial cites PLN suit against PHS re open government

Burlington FreePress, Jan. 1, 2010.
Editorial cites PLN suit against PHS re open government - Burlington FreePress 2010

Voice of the Free Press: Open government can't be privatized

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Burlington FreePress

A prison rights group's efforts to force disclosure of information from a government contractor is a critical effort to keep public records open as state government increasingly looks to privatize services to save money.

Prison Legal News -- a magazine and organization promoting prisoners rights -- is arguing that a company formerly known as Prison Health Services that provides health care services in Vermont prisons is subject to the state's public records law.

Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright got it right when he told The Associated Press that the state "cannot contract out the public's fundamental right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and the quality of services the pubic is getting for its money."

If there is any ambiguity about the reach of open government laws when government functions are contracted out to private firms, then the Legislature must make erasing that ambiguity a priority in the next session.

Vermont's open government laws are so full of exemptions and so lacking in consequences for the offender as to render them largely meaningless. The least the Legislature can do is to make sure the public's already limited ability to keep government accountable isn't shut down by privatization.

Around the country, private contractors are being hired by state and local governments in search of savings. There is no reason the reach of open government laws should stop simply because government functions paid for with tax dollars are in the hands of private companies.

If private companies want to profit by performing government functions, then they should expect to held accountable by taxpayers who will be paying the bills.

The principle must be that any government meeting or information that would be open to the public must remain so even if the function has been transferred outside of government. Otherwise, government officials could erect a wall of secrecy simply by outsourcing anything they might be hard pressed to explain to the public.

People have a right to know what their government is up to, and access is the first step in keeping government accountable. The responsibility to deliver information to the public rests with the elected officials and civil servants. That responsibility is undiminished even if government functions are privatized.

Advocating for open government will require a shift in culture for a Legislature more prone to seeking exclusions and exceptions to the open government laws to every interest that comes along. This is a change that must happen at the polls in November by extracting a pledge of open access and accountability from every candidate.