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The transparency tally

When Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law changes to Vermont’s public-records law – making it easier for citizens to see the inner workings of state government – he said his administration’s role was to “take care of Vermonters, not hide things from Vermonters,” and to create a “transparent, open government that lets people know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Sounds great, right?

The gov may need to repeat that quote to some of his appointees, particularly the folks at the Agency of Natural Resources – an agency led by former Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, whose previous job was to oversee the state’s public-records law.

ANR is refusing to release more than 500 emails, and countless other documents, that the agency exchanged with Green Mountain Power between January and July.

ANR staff claim the records must be kept secret because the documents pertain to a mitigation agreement between ANR and GMP that is part of an ongoing legal proceeding. The February agreement spells out how much land GMP must buy and conserve to offset the environmental impact of its 21-turbine wind project on Lowell Mountain.

ANR general counsel Jon Groveman and Shumlin’s chief legal counsel Beth Robinson argue that since the agreement is being reviewed before the quasijudicial Public Service Board, and any decisions could be appealed, it’s too soon to go public.

“Until the appeal period runs, we view the matter as being in litigation,” Robinson explained. Once any legal proceedings are over, Groveman and Robinson say the emails and other correspondence will likely be released.

How convenient. By the time the appeals process runs out, all 21 turbines could be up and running.

For now, ANR and Shumlin’s office are offering very few emails about the deal – and have rejected a request to release more than a dozen emails between Robert Dostis, GMP’s external affairs manager, and several key Shumlin aides, from the weeks leading up to the February agreement.

Dostis told “Fair Game” he first reached out to Shumlin’s Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs, Alex MacLean, in January to set up a meeting between ANR Secretary Markowitz and top GMP officials – including GMP CEO Mary Powell.

“This was just our attempt to get everyone in the same room and for us to ask, ‘What do we need to do to get your approval?’” said Dostis. “The real details of the agreement happened at the staff level. However, I wasn’t directly involved in those negotiations.”

Since Dostis wasn’t involved, you’d think Team Shumlin would release their communications with the administration, right? Wrong. Emails between Dostis and MacLean, and Dostis and Groveman, have been deemed off limits.

Asked for a complete list of the confidential records, Groveman said ANR would charge as much as $1200 for the goods.

Didn’t realize freedom of information could be so pricey.

Annette Smith, of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, received a comparable price quote. Smith has wrangled more embarrassing public documents from regulators in her day than have most full-time Vermont journalists.

“I’m appalled. I’ve been doing this for 12 years and I’ve never seen anything like this – we’ve never been [refused] information about agreements and permits before,” said Smith. “ANR is acting as though GMP is their client – or vice versa. It’s hard to tell just who is representing whom. But they certainly don’t seem to be representing the public.”