The American Society of Newspaper Editors dedicates a week every year to highlighting the importance of open government. It's called "Sunshine Week" - as in letting the sun shine in on government activity. The week concludes today.
Often, it is the media that beats the drum for open access to records and open government. But when we do, we are merely advocating on behalf of the broader public.
In honor of Sunshine Week, let us highlight local, state and national efforts to ensure the sun shines in on government:
- Locally, a judge ruled against the Steamboat Pilot & Today last week in an open-meetings lawsuit against the Steamboat Springs School Board. The judge read a transcript of the School Board's Jan. 8 executive, or secret, session and ruled that the board did nothing wrong during the session. But the judge's ruling did not address the newspaper's primary contention that the School Board did an inadequate job of saying why it needed to meet in private. The ruling will not deter our efforts to get boards to follow the law and give the public a clear and specific reason for shutting them out of a meeting.
- At the state level, we applaud the state Senate's approval of Senate Bill 45 and urge the House to follow suit. The bill caps the costs record keepers can charge for copies of records at 25 cents a page. Currently at $1.25 a page, Colorado charges more for copies than any state in the nation. That's shameful, especially when private businesses charge no more than 10 cents a copy.
- At the federal level, Congress worked on five bills related to open government last week in honor of Sunshine Week. The bills include measures to reduce response time to Freedom of Information Act requests, to limit no-bid federal contracts, to make donations to presidential libraries a matter of public record, to overturn a directive by President Bush that makes it easier for presidents to withhold records from public inspection, and to expand protections for whistleblowers. Sadly, the Bush administration, one of the most secretive in modern history, opposes the FOIA bill, the presidential records bill, the whistleblower bill and the no-bid federal contracts measure.
All of the above-mentioned bills and legal action are important to the media, including the Steamboat Pilot & Today. There is no doubt open records and open meetings laws make it easier for the newspaper to do its job.
But that doesn't mean such laws aren't equally important to the public at large. They are.
Government officials and elected representatives work for and at the will of the public. The documents they maintain belong to us. The meetings they hold are necessary to conduct our business.
Why should we have to pay 10 times the commercial rate for copies of records we own? Why should we have to wait months for access to such documents? Why shouldn't we expect public boards to let us watch and listen while they conduct our business?
Government doesn't always like light. Why? Because it's easier to operate without the glare of public scrutiny. But that doesn't make it right.
Here's our plea to the public: Help us keep your government open to you; help us let the sun shine in.