(Mike Smith is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas.)
The Vermont Department of Public Safety has earned two reputations of late — one good and the other bad.
First, the good reputation: The department recruits and employs dedicated public servants who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. Every Vermonter should be grateful for their service.
On the other hand, there’s the not-so-good reputation. Those in leadership positions at the department have gained a reputation in recent years of being less than transparent, even evasive, when it comes to releasing information to the public.
Unfortunately, if the bad reputation is allowed to continue, the actions of those few will ultimately tarnish the shining reputation of many.
Here are just three examples where the department has been less than forthcoming.
In the first example, WCAX-TV had to obtain a court order for the department to release information related to a nearly $4,000 expense for a privately chauffeured limousine service, in addition to a rental car, used to cart Gov. Peter Shumlin and his entourage around Paris for two days. The department argued that the governor’s travel expenses and associated costs were a matter of security and could not be released. A judge disagreed, and the department was ordered to release the limousine costs.
The department probably concluded that many Vermonters would be shocked by the price tag of renting the limousine; so, they fought the release of the travel costs. Clearly, there was an attempt to hide these costs.
Secondly, Mike Donoghue, a longtime crime beat reporter, discovered and then reported in the Rutland Herald that six months prior to 26-year-old Alexandra Rookery being found dead on a Poultney property owned by Wayne Oddo, another person — a man — was found dead on that same property. The Vermont State Police never revealed to the public this man’s death or the circumstances surrounding it even though they and the state’s attorney’s office were at Oddo’s residence investigating this death.
And thirdly, an elderly woman, Helen Jones of Arlington, was stabbed to death in her home after what appeared to be a botched robbery attempt. What Jones and the rest of the public didn’t know is that the state police failed to release information about a series of break-ins in that area before she was killed.
So, with the election of a new governor and with the appointment of a new commissioner of public safety, expectations were running high that there would be greater transparency coming from the department — especially since the new commissioner was Tom Anderson. He is someone that has worked closely with the media and the public in various capacities throughout his years in Vermont.
But instead, some will contend that the lack of transparency in the department has actually gotten worse under the new leadership.
On July 13 the Vermont State Police put into effect a new public information policy. Most in the media had been clamoring for a new policy for years, precisely because of incidents like those that happened in Poultney and Arlington. Unfortunately, this new policy may make public disclosure matters worse, not better.
As the Manchester Journal wrote in a recent editorial: “The public information policy — and let’s be honest, it’s essentially the guide to what Vermont State Police can and cannot tell the press — was enacted despite warnings from the Vermont Press Association that it does not meet the standards of the Vermont Constitution or state public records policy.”
Under the new policy, Vermont State Police will not release “person(s) name or information that could identify the victims of a sex crime, assault, including domestic assault, burglary, robbery, or any crime against the person.”
The news media have traditionally refused to publish the names of sex crime victims. But this new policy also restricts what traditionally would be public information. For example, burglaries in Arlington prior to the killing of Helen Jones would still not be released because information about the crime — such as residence addresses where the burglaries had occurred — are prohibited from being released to the public because they might expose the name of a victim. How does this new policy properly alert the public about crime in their neighborhood?
In addition, the Manchester Journal was critical of another part of the policy. The policy commits the Vermont State Police to issuing a news release within 24 hours of a death investigation but only if it “doesn’t impede or cause harm to the integrity of an investigation.” The Manchester Journal wrote: “And who gets to decide what causes harm to the integrity of an investigation? The Vermont State Police. If someone dies in a manner that warrants police investigation, it’s the public’s right to know whether police suspect a crime has been committed — and whether they should be concerned about their safety.”
So, the Poultney deaths would not necessarily have to be reported to the public under this policy if public safety leadership deemed that disclosure would cause harm or impede an investigation.
Anderson, a lawyer himself, criticized the editorial in the Manchester Journal with such aggressiveness that it’s reminiscent of how President Donald Trump and others in Washington would respond. In the opinion of some, he came just short of calling the editorial “fake news.”
Anderson complained that the editorial wasn’t accurate that, “the Vermont State Police is fully committed to transparency.” He cites statistics on the number of press releases to prove his transparency point.
But citing the number of press releases as a reasonable measure of transparency is equivalent to Trump citing the number of tweets as his measure of openness with the American people. It’s the substance of those releases that matters. Anderson’s argument is further illustration of the department’s lack of self-awareness on this issue.
He further defended the policy by stating it attempts to strike a balance between the public’s right to know, the privacy of crime victims, and the offender’s constitutional rights to a fair trial. But other departments have struck that balance while providing necessary information to the public.
One can go to most local police departments in Vermont and examine their publicly available “law incident summary reports” — or their logs, as most call them — and find out more information than what’s allowed to be released under the new Vermont State Police public information policy.
In Burlington, the Police Department has a public information policy that allows officers to release “the time, date, location, type of crime, and status of the investigation.” According to its new policy, the Vermont State Police will not allow for the release of the same information.
And a review of information made available to the public by the New York City Police Department provides more crime and crime victim information than allowed by Vermont’s new policy.
So are these other departments less committed to the objectives of the commissioner? Of course not. In fact, these departments may have achieved a better balance — especially as it relates to public protection — than the new Vermont State Police policy.
Anderson contends that this policy was developed in conjunction with the media. The wording of his contention is carefully phrased, because the media may have been invited to meetings, may have made suggestions at those meetings, but there was no sign-off on the new policy by either the Vermont Press Association and others because they had similar concerns to those that were pointed out in the Manchester Journal. The VPA president, Adam Silverman, confirmed his organization has not signed off on the new policy. And, according to sources, the VPA has vehemently objected to the new policy in meetings with state officials.
And then there’s the old political tactic of playing the victim — a tactic that Anderson tries to employ during his condemnation of the Manchester Journal editorial. The commissioner writes: “To suggest they — or I — are not concerned about the public’s safety or would deliberately withhold information that could negatively impact the safety of the public is simply false.”
It’s a clever tactic, and it’s subterfuge, because no one is accusing the commissioner of saying what he is accusing others of saying. Instead, what critics of the new policy are asking is to let the public decide what is newsworthy, not public safety.
From a political perspective you have to sit back and admire the chutzpah of the leaders in the Department of Public Safety. In some ways it’s a brilliant strategy, because if the media were upset by the inadequacies in the old policy, then the department has just created a new policy that’s even worse. The hope, perhaps, is that the media will now clamor for the old inadequate policy to be put back in place. Many Washington politicians would probably admire the Machiavellian aspect of this maneuver.
The state of Vermont has a public disclosure problem, not only in public safety but also elsewhere in state government. We have fallen woefully short, especially when compared to other states, in the area of government transparency.
The Department of Public Safety’s new public information policy is just another reminder of our deficiencies.