Commentary, Opinion

Virus is hurting the public’s right to know

By John Flowers, Addison Independent

After 35 years in reporting, I thought I’d been through a lot as a journalist:

Martial law in the Philippines; a couple of natural disasters — the big ice storm and rampant flooding in Addison County — in 1996; a double-murder/suicide; a visit by the Dalai Lama; local soldiers deploying (and returning) from wars in the Middle East; a major downtown renovation project: the Middlebury rail bridges project that is still in progress; a train derailment.

I’m now adding a new one to the list: COVID-19. The first, and hopefully last, worldwide pandemic I’ll ever have to cover.

It is the biggest reporting challenge I’ve ever experienced.

The news changes by the hour; your latest update story can become “old news” 10 minutes after you file it. I wince every time I “refresh” the Vermont Department of Health website, fearing the tally of Addison County coronavirus cases will spike. And everyone hopes that neither they — nor a loved one — becomes one of those statistics. My wife’s a nurse, my son’s an advanced EMT and my daughter is a social worker, all on the front lines. I’m in constant fear that one or all of my family members will be banished to self-quarantine at best, or a ventilator at worst.

The newspaper industry has been navigating challenging financial waters for several years, and now there’s a veritable storm brewing at a time when the public needs us most.

There’s no shortage of stories to cover these days, just fewer journalists to take them on. The coronavirus has more angles than a Picasso painting. There are the health impacts, the economic toll, the countless stories of generosity and perseverance, and of course the effect on public education. You file four stories and go to bed feeling like you’ve left 16 more on the table.

As reporters, our currency is equal parts trust and access. You earn trust over time, which gets you more sources to tell your story. But we’ve all been able to depend on Vermont’s Open Meeting Law to provide basic guarantees to public information at the state and municipal levels.

But it looks like COVID-19 is about to make that tougher.

The Senate Committee on Government Operations earlier this week met to finalize “emergency legislation” to relax open meeting law procedures in response to COVID-19.

The Senate panel, among other things, has been debating a requirement that all public municipal/school meetings have a phone number available for the public to dial into. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns has objected to that requirement, contending small towns would struggle with that technology requirement. So the committee settled on requiring a call-in number “whenever feasible” to allow the public access, or other electronic means.

Committee members also jousted about whether Select Boards and School Boards should have to record their meetings. They ultimately decided in favor of such a mandate “except in extraordinary situations that would make it impossible.”

Sounds pretty subjective to me and to other members of the Vermont Press Association (VPA) board.

The panel also recommended relaxing the current timeframe for boards to release meeting minutes. The current limit is five business days; the revised policy is 10 days.

What’s the big deal about that, you ask? If a board pitches a major zoning change or tax hike, how long do you want to wait for that news? Reporters can’t cover every meeting, so in many cases we have to depend on board minutes in learn about actions that lead to news stories.

The VPA has worked hard over the year to win these concessions — not only for journalists, but also for the public’s right to know.

Open government isn’t always easy. But it’s essential to our way of life.

John Flowers is a past president of the Vermont Press Association and a reporter for the Addison Independent, a sister paper to the Mountain Times.

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