Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 14, 15 or 16
A wonderful ecumenical Christian renewal program called Cursillo teaches about individuals’ foundation for worshipping God as a tripod, made up of separate supports of Piety, Study and Action.
A secular version of that metaphor can describe effective representative government, and that’s not a reference to the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Effective representative government is a tripod with legs of open meetings, open records and public notices.
If any of those three is absent, it collapses – into secrecy and darkness.
This week, as Daylight Saving Time arrived, people started to think about more daylight and spring and sunshine, and it’s also “Sunshine Week,” a time to promote and praise transparency in government, again, open government.
Again, openness in our republic means open meetings, open records and public notices. What’s that mean to everyday people?
Open meetings: A lot can and does go on behind closed doors, and laws give public agencies the right to enter into closed-meeting “executive sessions” under a few, specific situations. The law limits the presence of people at those meetings but nothing can be finalized until the public sees and hears subsequent action, if not debate. Open meetings also give citizens the right to speak. Public comments can be a key part of a public agency’s decisions.
Open records: Like open meetings, most public records are open. Some records can be closed under certain conditions, but the records are important for many reasons. Such records will reveal what’s happened behind the scenes, with some agencies trying to limit knowledge of what they did or argued. Maybe it’s a settlement with an employee costing the taxpayer money., or a revelation from a court proceeding, or just communications between agencies or officials.
Public notices: Often ignored compared to open records and open meetings, public notices contain information government agencies must distribute to their constituencies, from where and when they meet, and what they plan to discuss, to tentative budgets and proposed changes in laws.
So open government – and the Sunshine Week that supports it – isn’t for journalists. It’s for the taxpaying public, for citizens to whom government at all levels is supposed to be accountable and accessible.
“Isn’t it a shame we are at a point where transparency and open government needs to be discussed at all?” says Richard Whiting, editor of the Greenwood (S.C.) Index-Journal. “It should have already existed.”
Sunshine Week is traced to 2002, when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors organized public opinion against that state legislature trying to create a host of exemptions to existing open-government laws. Because of the publicity, most openness survived.
Today, the American Society of News Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other groups, plus sponsoring organizations ranging from Bloomberg L.P. to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, promote open government by means of Sunshine Week.
Again, journalists aren’t the exclusive beneficiaries of open government; citizens are. Journalists don’t have any more access than anyone else. Open meetings, open records and public-notice laws guarantee that anyone has access to information concerning how government operates.
That’s sensible. Watching government at any level isn’t a First Amendment right for the press; it’s a right for every American. The more people exercise their rights, the better the government can be.
“Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels,” the organization says, “and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.”
To be engaged citizens, people need to pay attention to their elected or appointed officials to see that they work in the best interest of the community.
As legendary U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
But it isn’t always easy. At all levels of government, there are a handful of officials determined to lock out the public. Most are honest but consider the public a nuisance, so they shut out folks by discussing secretly what legally should be discussed in the open. They do it by talking over issues via email, or by making decisions through private exchanges. And a few seek to make it difficult, if not impossible, for citizens to follow what they’re doing by delaying or denying public records requests for information that, by law, citizens have a right to.
For instance, Congress last year killed funding for the Census Bureau’s Consolidated Federal Funds Report, an annual breakdown of what the U.S. government spends, down to the penny, searchable by county. That significant information is more difficult to find now.
But we still live in a country that’s supposed to work for the majority of its citizens.