Woster: The dangers of secrecy in government
Sunshine Week is a national initiative, established in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, a group now known as the News Leaders Association.
Imagine you are in a committee room listening to legislators debate a bill when, suddenly, the chairman orders everyone out except committee members.
We’re talking about a meeting of a publicly elected body whose members receive public funds for serving in the Legislature. We’re talking about a meeting in the state Capitol, perhaps the most public structure in South Dakota. They can’t simply toss you out, right?
No, not usually, not today. Time was, though, citizens could be forced from a committee meeting at the whim of the chair. I saw it happen a few times in the early 1970s. Once, it happened during a committee discussion of what used to be called welfare programs. People got to testify but then everyone except committee members had to leave. The committee finished its discussion behind closed doors. They voted in secret, too. Citizens waited outside to learn what happened to a piece of public legislation being considered by publicly elected lawmakers in a public building funded by public taxes.
I think of that committee meeting now and then, usually when Sunshine Week rolls around. This year March 12-18 is Sunshine Week across the country. It is a time to celebrate open government and to talk about the dangers of secrecy in government actions and records.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative, established in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, a group now known as the News Leaders Association. News outlets across the country are writing and talking about the need to let the sun shine on the happenings in government, about the importance of opening the filing cabinets full of public records and letting the sun shine there, too. Sunshine chases away darkness that destroys confidence in government.
During the 1970s and after, South Dakota’s Legislature made great strides in opening its process to the people. Meetings, with a few exceptions, are open. Votes are recorded. Citizens can watch. If getting to Pierre is more than the budget, job or family commitments allows, people generally can follow proceedings online one way or another.
Things are much better than when I started. I didn’t regularly cover local governments in my career, so I don’t have much experience with their level of openness. Other reporters tell me closed-door sessions still take place too frequently. It takes constant vigilance by reporters and other members of the public to keep things from backsliding.
Much remains to be done to improve public access to government records. In 2009, the law was changed to say that, with some exceptions, records are presumed to be open. Then a string of exceptions was added to the law, cutting into that guarantee of openness. In my experience and in talking with other reporters, it still takes a lot of give-and-take to get some records.
Sometimes records may be legally open but practically inaccessible. I recall an instance in which my newspaper sought a set of records from a state agency. The documents were public, no problem. But the law allowed the agency to charge a dollar a copy. The set of records we wanted included 46,000 items. A $46,000 fee was just too much for us. We got the records by assigning people to sit in a basement room in the Capitol and type records, one at a time, onto a thumb drive.
Well, the paper got what it wanted, you might say. We did. We had people and resources and the motivation to do it. It took more than three weeks, with three people at times. Records are not open if a citizen can’t afford them or doesn’t have time and resources to sit in the Capitol basement with a laptop and a file drawer of documents.
Open government is how citizens learn what their government is doing. Knowledge helps citizens judge for themselves if government is doing what they want it to do.
News people tend to be the ones who celebrate open government. But government actions - whether fixing a swimming pool, plowing snow, finalizing a school calendar or deciding a tax rate – affect all of us.
Open government is good government. And good government should be important to everyone.