Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., March 13, 14 or 15
Scheduled annually around the birthday of Founder James Madison, Sunshine Week this year is March 16-22 and once more stresses the importance of openness.
After all, without open government, there’s no democracy. Without transparency, there’s no accountability.
Sunshine Week for 12 years has sought to enlighten and empower everyone concerning government, underscoring the ideal of self-government by helping to ensure people’s access to information, which can make communities stronger.
Effective representative government stands on three legs: Open Meetings, Open Records and Public Notices. If any of those three is absent, it collapses – into darkness, secrecy and an undemocratic society.
Sunshine Week tries to strengthen those supports and to celebrate the public’s right to know what’s being decided in our names with our tax dollars.
Sunshine Week is traced to 2002, when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors organized public opinion against that state legislature creating roadblocks to open-government laws. Because of that effort, most openness survived. In 2005, the event expanded nationwide, led by the American Society of News Editors.
However, open government – and Sunshine Week – isn’t just for journalists. It’s for all citizens, to whom government at all levels is supposed to be accessible and responsible. In fact, Illinois state records show that everyday citizens seeking access to government information led all requests for assistance from the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor – much more than reporters or lawyers, for instance. Two-thirds of all requests to that office were from the general public.
Sunshine Week is a nonprofit initiative involving media, libraries, public officials, civic groups, nonprofits, schools, religious leaders and other organizations. The issue is nonpartisan, too, as shown by a unanimous vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 25 improving the Freedom of Information Act: 410-0. Apart from future action, Representatives at least publicly stood for the idea of transparency.
In Illinois, a Bloomington alderman recently accused the City Council of breaking the law by holding secret talks about subjects not exempt from public discussion. Illinois’ Open Meetings Act provides exemptions for government bodies to meet in closed sessions to discuss a few topics, such as acquisition of property, collective bargaining, and discussions about the employment or performance of specific employees.
“I don’t believe we should go into secret and talk about sweeping general changes … or anything that is going to affect the citizens … unless there’s a critical legal reason,” said Alderman Judy Stearns.
Stereotypes or generalizations about corrupt officials or government are unfair. Most public servants are honest, hard-working and want to serve. Almost all local governments – cities and schools, police and fire departments, townships and counties – abide by the law, even if a few are sometimes wary or reluctant.
One former official did once respond to a request for information by saying, “It’s none of your business,” which, of course, is exactly wrong. Government is everyone’s business. Generally, however, noncompliance doesn’t result from officials thinking they’re “above the law” as much as it’s from not knowing the law or, occasionally, not really believing that everyday people can appreciate what’s going on – or perhaps thinking regular folks’ involvement interferes with officials’ duties.
But laws on open meetings, open records and public notices mean public officials should trust the people from whom they derive their authority (and budgets) and should be accountable.
A handful may have the misguided hunch that secrecy is more efficient, with the ability to operate without pesky questions or second-guessing by the uninformed. However, secrecy most often creates a lack of information, leads to unfounded accusations and speculation, and inadvertently erodes public confidence.
Open government lets people have informed opinions based on facts, not rumors.
As stated by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the laws address “the need to restore the public’s confidence in government.”
[PICTURED: Editorial cartoon by Don Landgren of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, courtesy of sunshineweek.org and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.]