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Guest editorial: Backing the right to know

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Posted on January 7, 2019 |
By Caledonia Record



Burlington Police Chief Brandon Del Pozo refuses to identify a driver who hit and killed a pedestrian in the North End earlier this month.

The Chief says the driver won’t be charged with a crime; was traumatized by the accident; is as much of a victim as the dead pedestrian; and (as such) is deserving of sensitivity.

“… We decided to withhold his name both as a matter of compassion and under the provisions in Vermont law that require taking steps to protect the identity of victims and witnesses,” Del Pozo wrote on Facebook.

His post generated a small cheering section of people who “liked” the Chief’s bottom line argument: “The Burlington Police Department, however, feels it doesn’t have an obligation to accelerate that {public identification}, especially if it will further traumatize someone who is, in a real way, another victim of this fateful accident on North Avenue.”

We think the Chief, and his cheerleaders, are missing some important points.

The public’s right to know isn’t a wishy-washy nicety over which government agents can lord. It’s the entire precept underlying government accountability. As such, the driver’s name in this narrow circumstance is far less important than the Chief’s predilection to withhold it.

As veteran reporter Mike Donoghue explains, “If police are going to start picking and choosing what information they give out, that defeats the whole purpose of the public records act the Vermont Legislature approved.”

Donoghue, who has more journalism awards and open-record accomplishments than we can count, is perfectly right.

The “right to know” does not mean “right to know only the things that are comfortable, convenient, and without controversy.” Nor does it mean “right to know only those things that police think are compassionate in the public interest.”

“Right to know” means the public has a right to know what our publicly-funded officials are doing in publicly-funded spaces, in keeping with Article Six of the Vermont Constitution: “That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them.”

This case might feature a sympathetic character and/or circumstance. But that’s neither a decision for a police chief to make on behalf of the public, nor a precedent that serves the people. When agents of government carve out exceptions to their reporting, those exceptions become precedent.

What happens next time when the driver is a relative of the mayor?

“Carrying this to the extreme would mean that no drivers involved in any public crashes on public highways will be identified by the BPD,” Donoghue answers. “That was never the intent of Vermont’s public records law.”

Indeed it was not.

Del Pozo puts the question out to his Facebook followers. “Someone noted, indignantly, that this type of withholding hasn’t ever been done before for a driver qua victim/witness,” he writes. “True, but thinking evolves, and it has evolved about PTSD and trauma. How we handle it is a work in progress.”

In our experience, “thinking” around issues of transparency don’t, in fact, evolve. The only evolution we’ve ever seen are the clever ways in which government attempts to end-run the public’s right to know.

 — Published in the Caledonia Record, Jan. 3, 2019

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