Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 16, 17 or 18
Something seemed rotten.
But unlike that journalist’s doubt, journalism itself marks hope this week – Sunshine Week 2015. It’s a time to recognize and celebrate transparency in government, whether on Capitol Hill or area Townships, county seats or local fire districts.
Government openness is a critical pillar of Americans having a voice – of democracy itself – and that’s true on local and county levels as well as state and national.
Fortunately, an overwhelming number of local public officials are responsive to citizens and are appreciative of the accountability that’s part of their jobs. Almost all officials are honest and competent, and are willing to work at making at least their part of the planet a better place. Public records are made available. Corruption is so rare as to be nonexistent (especially compared to Springfield and Washington).
Of course, as with almost anything, there are ways government can be more open – better.
* Accessible officials. Officials should list phone numbers and email addresses so constituents can contact them. There’s sensible privacy, and there’s needless secrecy.
* Online presence. Boards, councils, etc. should maintain web sites – or at least Facebook pages, There, they can let the community know when and where they or their committees are meeting, issues planned for consideration, special events, forms to complete and other useful references.
* Public comment. If taxpayers want to address a board, it should be easy – even if there’s a time limit so regular business isn’t disrupted. Similarly, boards should welcome items from constituents to put on agendas for public discussion.
* Executive sessions. These secret sessions shouldn’t be used routinely, but just when appropriate, as specified – and limited – by law. Further, when a lively debate occurs behind closed doors, it should at least be summarized when the group resumes open deliberations. Otherwise, the public is kept in the dark about officials’ thoughts, opinions and points of view. Excluding individual members of the public from meetings also excludes the entire community, and it hides details that may be important for the public to know.
“When the flow of information about our elections, our government, and our democracy is curtailed, we’re nurturing a culture of mistrust and cynicism,” says Edwin Bender of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Plus, it’s practical.
Very few folks who work and raise a family have the time to go to several public meetings every month to see what officials from counties, villages, townships, fire protection districts, school boards and other governments are doing.
Reporters try to connect What Goes On with Who Will Care. In that sense, journalists try to perform their trade as a public service, too, helping to equip everyday people with facts to make their own informed decisions.
Government officials don’t pursue public service to be popular. Sometimes difficult decisions are needed for the greater good, or actions may be popular with some voters but not all. Public employees, whether elected, appointed or hired, work in a climate requiring open government and accountability to the community.
Likewise, as the late Helen Thomas, UPI’s longtime White House reporter, once remarked, “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It’s our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”
Even if things sometimes seem rotten, sunshine is the best disinfectant, as it’s been said.
[PICTURED: "Shady pols" cartoon by Ed Hall.]