Sunshine Week puts a light on the people's right to know

Sunshine Week puts a light on the people’s

The Issue: Too often, members of the public don’t recognize efforts to conceal public information.

Our View: Sunshine Week is an effort to inform the public of the importance of transparency.

CARLINVILLE (March 15, 2018) – It’s difficult to listen to the news lately without hearing talk of things like back channels and secret meetings, neither of which should ever exist at any level of government in this country.

March 11-17 is Sunshine Week. While the designation may not mean anything to everyone, it certainly affects everyone.

Sunshine Week is an effort that was spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors. Its purpose is to educate the public about the importance of having an open government and what can happen when too much information is kept from the public.

It is through laws like the Open Meetings Act (OMA) and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that the public’s right to know is protected. When governments at any level exist in a vacuum, the public is denied essential access.

That isn’t to say there aren’t times when a governing body can meet privately to discuss matters involving things like personnel, contracts and legal matters. In our experience, however, when a governing body enters into an executive session to talk about such things, a very vague description is given to the public. In fact, the public is often told, quite literally, the board will go into executive session to discuss “personnel, contracts or legal matters” with no further specifics.

Usually, members of the public, and even the media, accept such descriptions without challenge. This needs to stop.

Governing bodies, whether they are a village board of trustees, city council, school board or county board, need to be called out for such shady behavior. If the board will be discussing a specific lawsuit in executive session, the public should be told. If the discussion will be about a contract with the police or labor union, the public should be informed as such.

Not even all personnel matters are exempt from public knowledge.

For example, we know of a city that refused to provide a member of the public with a blank copy of a form the city used when evaluating employees, including the city manager. When the city refused, citing the document, although blank, as a “personnel matter,” the resident took the matter to the state’s attorney general who ruled in favor of the citizen.

Unfortunately, many citizens and even some journalists would have taken the city’s refusal as the last word and not pursued the matter further.

This is why Sunshine Week exists. It’s an effort to shine a light on unnecessary secrecy in government. Much like children, it’s not unusual for governing bodies to push the boundaries. Therefore, it’s up to the press and informed citizens to stand up to such shady tactics.

No democratic government can exist without transparency. It was President Abraham Lincoln who said ours is a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” No elected official, party or governing body is more important than that.