20 March 2010 at 11:06:34 AM
From Holland, Michigan
There’s a natural tendency for people in any organization to identify with their own group and divide the world into “us” and “them.” For government officials, that means a temptation to consider the documents they work with, the records they file and the deliberations they hold to be “theirs.” In reality, by law and by all standards of good government, those documents and meetings are “ours,” whether we are a a CEO or an unemployed line worker, a Tea Party member or a MoveOn.org activist. It doesn’t matter whether we’re dealing with the Pentagon Papers or a local development proposal, public records belong to the public. That’s why we have the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act — laws with too many exemptions but still statutes critical to a functioning democracy. And that’s what we have to remind government officials about over and over.
It’s not just to assure we have something to write about. It is to assure accountability.
We urge our local government institutions and our elected and appointed leaders to use Sunshine Week as a reminder to update their Web sites and do some spring cleaning. A check of a few local Web sites finds many with outdated information and lacking in some of the pertinent information that should be available and easy for citizens to retrieve.
For instance, Baltimore city just settled a lawsuit brought against its police department by awarding $200,000 to an anonymous plaintiff. Gosh, that's a lot of taxpayer money. Who received it, what were the charges and why did the city settle? Sorry, it's a secret.
According to the city, the mystery plaintiff "demanded confidentiality as part of the settlement. Had we not provided that, the cost of the settlement may have been much higher." The case is so sensitive, says the city, that none of the names or details can be disclosed.
The city claims the secrecy is to protect the plaintiff from embarrassment but skeptics wonder if it's the police who are being protected. We'll never know because the city is constrained by the confidentiality requirements of its settlement. How nifty, the city buys both silence and secrecy when its police department screws up.
“Government is the servant of the people, and not the master of them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”
– Original legislative preamble to West Virginia’s Open Meetings Act, since amended.....
Open government laws are there for the people, the masters of government, to ensure that government actions really are designed to benefit the public.
Open government laws provide tools – the Freedom of Information Act and access to meetings by government bodies – that allow all citizens the ability to keep an eye on the government that’s supposed to be representing them.
Yes, the press makes good use of these tools, too, but on the public’s behalf – which makes open government an issue that all concerned citizens should pay attention to.
These laws, after all, work only if public officials follow them or if citizens hold those who don’t accountable.
Public officials often believe they have good cause to shut out the public. Sometimes they even do. The Virginia open government act has more than enough exemptions to cover such instances.
But sometimes it just comes down to convenience. It would be easier to meet in private, less messy. It would protect someone’s reputation or prevent unnecessary controversy. Excuses abound.
When you hear such excuses, just remember this: The people do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.
Do your best to make sure public servants remember it, too.
Fort Wayne, IN
“A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees. Providing persons with the information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees, whose duty it is to provide the information. This chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy. …”
– Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act
Las Cruces Sun
After the celebrating is done, it's back to work. We still have to fight, day in and day out, to enforce our state Inspection of Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act. It still takes months, and sometimes years, to obtain important government documents or to overturn illegal closed-door actions. It also takes money, time and a big chunk of sanity. But it's a worthy fight, and it's a fight we will win. In the end, we the people are sovereign and we will assert our right to know. Please get out and assert that right today.
Each year, it seems more state legislators want to limit your access to government action and information. Here at home, some elected officials routinely go into closed session so often it strains credulity to believe the sessions all meet tenets of the law.
Open government should be an important issue to you at home, as well as in Atlanta and Washington. After all, it’s your local elected and appointed officials who often have the most impact on your quality of life. Local issues that raise taxes or change the complexion of your neighborhood can have dramatic effects.
Politicians are fond of saying the majority of citizens don’t care about open meetings or open records. They insist the general public is content to trust their officials and “nosy newspapers” are only looking for controversy.
The facts say otherwise.
Government agencies consistently report it is the average citizen, not a news reporter, who most often makes requests for access to public documents. Whether it is looking up a record in the clerk of courts office, asking for a police incident report or simply reviewing minutes of a city council meeting, open government is one of our nation’s most sacred rights �” but one taken far too lightly.
Certainly, we in the newspaper business take advantage of open records and open meetings to access information for stories but the important thing to remember is (a) the press has no more right to information than you and (b) the only reason the press seeks information is to make it more easily available to you. Some government officials are constantly attempting to hide their actions. Fortunately, vigorous efforts by a watchdog press, guardians of the public’s right to know, are usually successful in alerting you when such attempts are made.
Casper, WY-about the Public Information Act bill
Open government is not about being open to the press but rather about being open to the public -- those voters or not who are, in essence, the bosses of those in positions of power. Therefore, we have sunshine laws which allow the employers -- the public -- to review the work of employees.
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