We’ve reached the middle of the annual observance called Sunshine Week (March 14-20), and I’m not sure there’s been a time in my life when openness in government has been as important as it is today.
There’s so much misinformation, distortion and outright lies going around that it isn’t easy to know what is happening. The surest way to cut through the garbage and give citizens information they need to make decisions about their lives is to have government records and government meetings and actions at all levels open and accessible.
Sunshine Week spotlights that need. The creation of the American Society of News Editors in 2005, Sunshine Week promotes citizen access to public records and meetings. The basic premise is that government works best when it works out in the open — in the sunshine, so to speak. In this country, government belongs to the people. Our elected and appointed leaders serve us, so all of us have an interest in knowing what those leaders are doing with our lives, property and money.
Many slogans have been used over the years to educate people about the importance of open government. This year I’ve been seeing “Open government is good government.’’ I like that a lot. My personal favorite is “Democracy dies in darkness.’’ It’s a reminder to every citizen that they have a right to know what their government is doing and a responsibility to make some effort to be aware of what’s going in their city councils and county commissions and statehouses and federal offices.
As many people know, I spent my professional life as a newspaper reporter. Open government has always been important to me. I think I recognized early on that most citizens didn’t have the time or the access to government meetings and records that I had. I got paid to attend meetings, study budgets, pore through audits and read all manner of contracts and white papers and background reports and legislative bills. I grew to understand that I had a right to see that information and attend those meetings, but I also had a responsibility to present, as clearly and completely as possible, what I learned from reading and listening to people who deserved the information but lacked the access I had.
I first heard about Sunshine Laws back in journalism school in the 1960s, probably in Paul Jess’s class about laws affecting newspapers and broadcasters. The state of Florida had some of the first clear laws dealing with open government. I studied the material and did OK on my tests, but it wasn’t until I began covering South Dakota government that I really started to understand the importance of citizen access to meetings and records.
I found this passage on the website of the News Leaders Association: “All the business transacted by government and all the money collected and spent by government belong to the public. However, public oversight is only possible when government is open, transparent and accessible.’’
In my time as a reporter, I covered some candidates who pledged to be open and above board in all things but who, once elected, discovered that it’s often easier, more comfortable, to do some things out of eyesight and earshot of the people who elected them. Not every candidate changed after winning an election, but some did. I understand that. Doing business in public can be hard, man. I’d cringe at voting on something like a mask mandate with the whole community watching. It isn’t easy, but it’s one small example of what open government requires.
It’s also why I wouldn’t be a good public official. Good public officials know some decisions are difficult. They know release of some records won’t endear them to their constituents. They make those decisions in public, anyway. They provide those records, anyway. Being responsive to the people trumps being well liked. At least, it should.
Reporters are just citizens who read the records and go to the meetings. The whole point of Sunshine Week isn’t that news people have a right to public information. It’s that you have that right. Every citizen does. If you remember nothing else this week, remember that.