Herald-Whig View

Government's business is also our business

Posted: Mar. 13, 2016 12:15 am
"Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe."

-- President Abraham Lincoln, 1861

TODAY MARKS the beginning of the 11th annual Sunshine Week, a seven-day national effort by news organizations to point a spotlight on the public's right to know and grade the state of government openness and access to public records.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing into law the federal Freedom of Information Act, the forerunner of various state statutes. It has been more than four decades since Congress moved to strengthen its provisions in the wake of the calamitous abuses uncovered during the Watergate scandal.

That the people's business at every level of government, from a school board to the White House, should be conducted in public is a simple concept. Sunshine Week coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, our fourth president and an ardent supporter of free speech and freedom of information. Madison knew there is accountability when citizens can see their government do business.

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives," Madison said more than two centuries ago.

Sadly, officials at all levels of government routinely resist the basic principles of the Freedom of Information Act and its state equivalents. Some violations are deliberate attempts to evade public oversight, but many -- especially on the local level -- are the result of a lack of understanding of what the laws allow and how they apply to public business.

As part of its Sunshine Week coverage, the Associated Press sent open-records requests to the top Democratic and Republican lawmakers in all 50 states and most governors, seeking copies of their daily schedules and emails from the government accounts for the week of Feb. 1-7. The AP received more denials than approvals.

The AP reported that neither the Illinois Senate nor the House, both controlled by Democrats, turned over records. House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, in that position for 31 of the last 33 years, doesn't use email or keep an appointment calendar, spokesman Steve Brown told the AP. The Senate said it is not required to disclose any of the requested records because of legislative immunity granted by the state constitution.

Both the House and Senate also argued that the requested documents are not public records, as defined by the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, because they are held by individuals who do not constitute "public bodies." They may also be withheld, officials argued, under exemptions in the law for documents that contain "preliminary" discussions and that prohibit disclosing records when doing so would be a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

In addition, three of Missouri's top four lawmakers -- the House speaker, Senate president pro tem and Senate minority leader -- all denied requests. This despite the state's Sunshine Law's clear language: "It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law."

The Missouri Sunshine Law applies to any "public governmental body." However, the Republican-controlled legislature has interpreted that to cover the House and Senate and committees, but not each individual lawmaker. And many advocates of openness claim the state's Sunshine Law lacks teeth, enabling governmental bodies of all sizes to find ways to shut out the public.

Moreover, the price for the public to see government records continues to rise as some officials set exorbitant fees that often prevent information from flowing. Although some states have taken steps to limit those fees, many have not, and such costs are a growing threat to expanding transparency at all levels of government.

While Sunshine Week promotes open government and greater compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, journalists and citizens alike should remain diligent in demanding that those principles be followed every day. Otherwise, democracy is weakened.

Clearly, the more enlightened a society becomes, the more government officials should realize the importance of transparency and truthfulness. The people's business, after all, belongs to the people.