Vermont Freedom of Information Act
What is the Vermont Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal law permitting anyone to access federal agencies' records that have not been exempted from disclosure. FOIA promotes transparency in government and has been adapted by all states since its enactment in 1966. Vermont's FOIA law is known as the Public Records Act which is codified in 1 V.S.A. §§ 315-320. Under Vermont Public Records Act (VPRA), any individual possesses the right to copy or inspect a public record from government agencies.
Transparency and accountability to the people in the conduct of the public's business is the fundamental goal in the promulgation of the VPRA. Vermont’s legislature considers transparency an essential element of open and democratic government and deems the VPRA an effective tool in providing transparency to the public. The VPRA and the Vermont Open Meeting Law implement the instruction of Chapter I, Article 6 of the state Constitution which stipulates that government officers are servants and trustees of the people always, in a legal way, and accountable to them.
The VPRA has undergone several amendments, with recent specific changes in January 2019 and July 2019. These changes primarily amended the Act's expiration and renewal process for exemptions. The status or identity of an individual requesting a record is irrelevant in the determination of a request. Also, the purpose of the request or the use of the records when obtained bears no impact on whether the request will be granted or not.
What is Covered Under the Vermont Freedom of Information Act?
All public records of all branches, agencies, divisions, departments, and subdivisions of the state and local government in Vermont are covered under the state's Public Records Act. Per 1 V.S.A. § 317(a), local government authorities covered include all town, municipal, and county governments and their boards and commissions. School districts, regional planning commissions, regional waste disposal, sewer authorities, and water authorities are also subject to the VPRA. Pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 317(b), public records include any recorded or written information (such as documents, papers, and machine-readable materials) regardless of physical characteristics or form, which is acquired or produced in the course of a public agency's business, except for those exempted under a state or federal law.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Vermont?
Vermont's Public Records Act seeks to strike a balance between constitutional obligations for government transparency and conflicting interests in protecting some private and personal information. Hence, certain records are exempted from public disclosure in the act. According to 1 V.S.A. § 317, the following categories of records are exempted from public disclosure:
- Records that are statutorily classified as confidential or bear a similar designation.
- Records that are restricted by law to specified individuals.
- Records that, if made public, would cause the custodian to violate validly accepted rules of ethics or behavior applicable to any state-regulated profession.
- Records that if made available would cause the record custodian to violate a statutory or common law privilege asides the common law deliberative process privilege as it applies to the executive branch of Vermont and the General Assembly.
- Records relating to crime detection and investigation.
- Tax return and related documents.
- Personal papers pertaining to a person, including information included in any files kept for the purpose of hiring, evaluating, promoting, or disciplining any public agency employee.
- Test questions, scoring keys, and any other equipment or information needed to conduct licensure, job, or academic examination.
- Trade secrets.
- Lists of names collected or acquired by a governmental agency under circumstances where publication would breach an individual's right to privacy or result in a public or private advantage.
- Student records
- Records relating to policy creation when disclosure would constitute an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.
- Information about the location of real or personal property for public agency purposes and information regarding the valuations or purchase price of real or personal property for public agency purposes prior to announcements or the official award of contracts.
- Records pertaining to legal proceedings in which the public agency is a party of record
- Specifically, records connected to contract negotiations, including collective bargaining agreements with public workers.
- Any information submitted voluntarily by a person, company, organization, partnership, association, trustee, estate, or other entity in the State of Vermont before the establishment of VPRA.
- Records of the Department of Public Safety's Office of Internal Investigation.
- Records pertaining to the identity of library users or the identity of library patrons associated with patron registration and transaction records.
- Information indicating the location of archaeological sites and submerged historic structures.
- Any compiled or obtained name list by the Vermont Life magazine to create and maintain a subscriber list.
- Certain documents created or collected by or on behalf of University of Vermont academics, staff, employees, or students.
- Internal materials prepared for or records of deliberations of any public entity working in a judicial or quasi-judicial capacity.
- Passwords, access codes, user identifications, security processes, and similar information that, if disclosed, would jeopardize personal safety or the security of public property.
- Records of impartial external evaluations of health care service choices, as well as internal documents prepared for such reviews.
- The Secretary of State's records pertaining to participants in the Address Confidentiality Program.
- All database structures and application code under state control, including the vermontvacation.com website and Travel Planner application.
- Information that is relevant primarily to the protection of public property and the security of individuals on or within a public property.
- Personal identifying voter records, such as day and month of birth, social security number, telephone number, email address, and driver's license or non-driver ID number.
- Bank, debit, charge, and credit card account numbers held by an agency or its staff on behalf of the agency.
- Affidavits of income and assets in accordance with 15 V.S.A. § 662 and Vermont Rules for Family Proceedings, Rule 4.
- Anti-fraud plans and summaries filed under 8 V.S.A. 4750.
- Patient Safety Surveillance and Improvement System records supplied to the Department of Health.
- Records containing prescription data that may be used to identify a prescriber.
- Records of the Department of Financial Regulation or the Agency of Human Services relating to prescription information containing patient-identifiable data that may be used to identify a patient.
- Genealogical records submitted with or in support of an application for tribal recognition.
- Documents evaluated by the Victims Compensation Board prior to accepting a compensation application.
- Unless otherwise specified by law, information that may be used to identify a complaint alleging that a public agency, an employee of a public agency, or a person delivering goods or services to a public agency on a contract basis violated the law or participated in waste, fraud, or abuse of power.
- Records pertaining to a regulated utility's cybersecurity program, assessments, and plans, including any reports, summaries, compilations, analyses, notes, and other cybersecurity information.
How Do I File a Vermont Freedom of Information Act Request?
There is no central public record repository in Vermont. Public record requests must be made directly to the agency, operating as the custodian of the record you seek. You do not need to state the purpose and the use of a record sought. You may file your public record requests to the record custodian by telephone, mail, email, fax, or in person. To obtain the contact information of a record custodian, you may visit the agency's website. Many agencies have public record request policies that requesters must adhere to and online application forms that users may use to complete requests. For others, you can download VPRA application forms from their websites which may be mailed to the appropriate mailing addresses upon completion. Otherwise, you can obtain the physical address of an agency from its website and visit the location in person to inspect or copy public records.
Additionally, you may submit your public records request in writing. A written request helps the record custodian understand the precise nature of the record you request and may result in a more rapid and accurate response. When submitting formal written requests for public records, it is essential that you provide specific details concerning the public record. It is also recommended that you include information such as the requester's name, telephone number, mailing address, and email address.
The following are examples of filing public record requests in Vermont:
Department of Health
Health Department Operations & Records Office
108 Cherry Street
Burlington, VT 05402
The Office of the Vermont Attorney General: To complete a public record request to the Vermont AGO (Attorney General Office), complete the Office's Public Records Request Form or visit:
Vermont Attorney General's Office
109 State Street
Montpelier, VT 05609
Phone: (802) 828-3171
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Vermont?
Under 1 V.S.A. § 316(b), a public agency may charge and collect the actual cost of providing a copy, including the cost associated with transmitting the record by facsimile, mailing, or other electronic means. In some instances, agencies and political subdivisions may also charge and collect a fee for the staff time spent responding to a copy of a public document request. These costs may be recouped if the following conditions are met:
- The time directly required to fulfill the request exceeds 30 minutes;
- The agency agrees to create a public record; or
- The agency agrees to provide the requested public record in a nonstandard format, and the time directly required to fulfill the request exceeds 30 minutes.
Where staff time costs apply to a request for public documents, the agency may require that the request be submitted in writing and that the charges be pre-paid.
According to 1 V.S.A. § 316(d), the following fees were established by the Vermont Secretary of State (Uniform Charges Schedule) as the actual costs of providing a copy of a public record:
- $0.33 per minute after the initial 30 minutes for staff time spent physically copying a record.
- $0.57 per minute for time spent by senior-level personnel and information technology specialists extracting data from databases or completing comparable procedures in order to comply with a request to create a new public record.
- $0.45 per minute for any additional staff time that may be invoiced and collected under 1 V.S.A. § 316(d).
- $0.05 per single-sided page, $0.09 per double-sided page for documents up to 8.5 x 14 inches for photocopies.
- $1.00 per single-sided page for color photocopies.
- $0.02 per page for computer-generated paper copies up to 8.5 by 14 inches.
- $0.28 per 3.5-inch diskette for computer diskettes.
- $0.86 for each write-once Compact Disc with a case and $2.31 for a re-writable CD with a case.
- $0.81 for each audio tape.
- $1.69 per video tape.
- $2.00 for each write-once Digital Video Disc with a case and $4.00 for a re-writable DVD with a case.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Vermont?
Under 1 V.S.A. § 318(a)(1)(A), a public agency is required to respond to a VPRA request promptly and issue the requester a response in no more than three business days from the date of the receipt of a request. If access is denied, the VPRA allows the requester to appeal the decision of a public record custodian to the head of the agency. Per 1 V.S.A. § 318(c)(2), the head of the agency must make a written determination on the appeal within 5 business days following the receipt of the appeal. If the agency's head upholds the denial of a request in part or whole, the written determination will include:
- The legislative basis claimed for sustaining the denial;
- A concise summary of the reasons and supporting facts for upholding the denial; and
- Notice of the provisions for judicial review of the determination pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 319.
According to 1 V.S.A. § 318(b)(5), Vermont permits public agencies to extend the response period to up to 10 working days by a written certification if one or more of the following stipulated unusual circumstances exist:
- If the request requires the agency to search or collect documents from field offices;
- If the request requires the search or collection of large volumes of records; or
- If the request requires consultation with another agency.
Failure to meet any applicable deadlines will be deemed a denial of access to public records. Pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 319, you may proceed to file a lawsuit in the superior court to enforce compliance with the VPRA.