The Shumlin administration treats public records requests from sitting lawmakers the same as those from ordinary citizens, unless they come from a committee chair, one lawmaker found out recently.
That’s bad for transparency and accountability, says Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who has recently struggled to get records from the Department of Mental Health, which she says concern its oversight of psychiatric hospitals and facilities.
“It’s a real problem if only the majority party can hold the administration responsible,” she said.
The Democratic majority in the Legislature controls committee chair appointments, and if the selected chair doesn’t feel like pushing the administration — which is the same party — on a given issue, then the policy doesn’t get scrutinized, Donahue said.
“It defeats a portion of the purpose behind the balance of powers,” she said.
Donahue was told fees associated with a recent public records request would not be waived and that, “we will not treat individual legislators differently than any other requestor of public records,” in an email from Karen Barber, general counsel for the Department of Mental Health.
Barber adds, “… If a request came from a committee we would of course comply without charge.”
The state wanted $450 to compile records that would detail the Department of Mental Health’s knowledge and response to recent issues at the Brattleboro Retreat, the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence and Springfield Hospital.
“I want to know what DMH knew when, and how they followed up,” Donahue said.
Two of the five records she requested were easily produced and given to her free of charge. Donahue has agreed to inspect the remaining documents in-person to avoid the $450 fee.
If she believes the records she inspects are relevant to the House Human Services Committee or the Mental Health Oversight Committee, both of which she is a member, she will ask Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, the chair of both committees, to sponsor her request.
Pugh said she was not aware of Donahue’s public records request, and was not prepared to say if she would sponsor it.
There also needs to be a wider discussion of who can make public records requests on behalf of the Legislature, she said.
The Retreat has had two incidents of attempted suicide or self-harm and a violent confrontation between staff and patients this year, all on the same adolescent unit.
Deficiencies reported by the State Division of Licensing and Protection could still threaten the psychiatric hospitals standing with the federal government.
Without federal certification, the Retreat would not be eligible to receive federal money the state relies on to house acute psychiatric patients at the hospital.
The report from state investigators was provided to lawmakers at a July 22 meeting of the Joint Mental Health Oversight Committee, but officials from the Retreat were not forthcoming about the feds involvement (the Retreat received a termination letter from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services July 8).
Pugh said that Department of Mental Health and Retreat officials made her aware of the incidents that precipitated the letter of termination, but could not recall if she was aware of CMS involvement at the time of the meeting.
Donahue said she felt testimony on the incidents was abbreviated, and left her with unanswered questions. She made the records requests to get a better understanding of what happened, she said.
Pugh does not think the Retreat was intentionally being opaque, but that they selected the wrong personnel to testify, and that in the past “they’ve been pretty forthcoming” with the Legislature.
As for state officials, who also did not notify lawmakers about security issues at the Middlesex psychiatric facility prior to the July meeting, Pugh said that it occurred “in the middle of the summer” and the responsive parties in the department “may have been on vacation.”
Both Pugh and Donahue say the Retreat is an integral part of the state’s mental health system and ensuring its patients are safe and receiving appropriate treatment is a top priority.
As for who should be able to make records requests on behalf of the Legislature, that is a question the still needs to be resolved, they say.
CORRECTION: Karen Barber is general counsel of DMH, not an assistant attorney general as originally reported.