WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Holding Accountable All Levels of Government

Mar 27, 2013

A couple of weeks ago a couple of harbingers of Spring came and went, and each acknowledges how we depend on sunshine.

One was Daylight Savings Time, letting us think about spring and more sunlight, and the other was “Sunshine Week,” a time to promote and praise transparency in government: open government.

Bill Knight

Effective representative government depends on transparency through open meetings, open records and public notices. If any of those three is absent, government collapses into secrecy and darkness.

What’s that mean to everyday people? First, Open meetings: A lot can and does go on behind closed doors, and laws give public agencies the right to enter into closed meetings 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.

Next, Open records: Like open meetings, most public records are open. Some records can be closed under certain conditions, but records are important for many reasons, like revealing 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.

Lastly, 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.

And open government isn’t for journalists’ conveneience. It’s for the taxpaying public, for citizens to whom government at all levels is supposed to be accountable and accessible.

Richard Whiting, editor of the Greenwood (S.C.) Index-Journal, wrote, “Isn’t it a shame we are at a point where transparency and open government needs to be discussed at all? It should have already existed.”

Sunshine Week is sponsored by the American Society of News Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other groups, plus sponsors ranging from Bloomberg L.P. to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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 and civic-minded. 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.

To be engaged citizens, people must pay attention to elected or appointed officials to see that they work in the best interest of the community.

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.

As legendary U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.