Next week is Sunshine Week across the country, the week where newspapers and other media focus on why -- as stated on the Reports Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Sunshine Week website -- “open government is good government.”
I decided to observe the week a few days early rather than at the end of the week next Friday so you could undertake your own ways of making sure government is working for you and not itself.
Like me, other editors around the country will write editorials and columns. They may, as I plan to, run special editorial cartoons or guest columns from Freedom of Information Act experts. Or they might assign their reporters to dive into open records requests to see what they can ferret out.
These are all good things. However, I always come back to something I truly believe: Sunshine Week is not just about making sure journalists can get their hands on the information they need to publish stories. It’s at least as much about those of you who read this newspaper and about those who don’t being able to obtain the same information for themselves. We journalists merely serve as your proxies, taking the time and our talents as writers and reporters to help you make sense of it.
Sunshine Week isn’t just about documents, either. It’s about the way government operates and whether it is doing so in the full light of the public’s collective eye. As most readers know, I’m a huge advocate for open meetings. More precisely, I advocate for making sure things discussed in executive sessions are properly revealed to the public at the appropriate time.
One of my many fellow editors, Brian J. Hunhoff at the Yankton County (South Dakota) Observer, has already penned a column called “The Ten Commandments for Open Meetings.”
Most of his 10 items are ones our local bodies adhere to: don’t gather quorums outside of regular meetings and don’t hold special meetings without at least 24 hours public notice; don’t habitually add last-minute items to agendas and don’t act on anything not on the posted agenda; don’t abuse the litigation excuse for executive sessions to speculate about possible or imagined lawsuits; don’t stretch the personnel excuse to discuss policy issues; don’t “dial up” the negotiations excuse to suddenly excuse the public from discussion of controversial issues; don’t allow executive sessions to stray into other topics; don’t violate the spirit of open meeting laws with frequent, phone, email or text messages; don’t make a habit of whispering or passing notes at meetings -- tell us what you have to say out loud; allow public input at every meeting, included on every agenda; and be as transparent as possible by not holding executive sessions because attorneys said it was OK.
These are all steps your elected and appointed officials can take each and every day to make sure their constituents -- you -- have full knowledge of the business they are conducting.
So, when you are at a meeting and you think something shady is going on -- speak up and say so! Now, I don’t mean for everyone to get riled up just because they don’t like the way certain votes are going or a particular policy being passed.
Save your indignation for when a council or board truly violates the spirit, intent or letter of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). If you don’t understand exactly why a public body is going into executive session, stand up and tell them you want a better explanation. If they vote on something after coming back out of executive session and you don’t understand exactly what they voted for, make them tell you.
Following various candidates, whether local, state or national? Ask them whether they believe government should approach FOIA with a presumption of openness (disclosure). Ask them if they’d be willing to disclose the sources of “big money” donations to their campaigns.
Remember, government officials work for you, not themselves. If you want “good government,” fight for it by keeping them accountable.