This is a guest column written by Jim Zachary, a regional editor of CHNI newspapers in the south eastern United States. He is also vice-president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
The theme for Sunshine Week 2019, March 10-16, is simply, “It’s your right to know.”
The reason it’s your right to know is that it’s your government.
From the courthouse to the statehouse to the White House, it is your right to know what government is up to.
Every deliberation by a city council, county commission, the General Assembly or U.S. Congress is the people’s business.
Every penny spent by local, state and federal government is your money. Every document held in the halls of government belongs to you.
Transparency is not, or at least should not be, partisan. Nor should access to government meetings and public documents ever be arduous or even controversial.
Government derives all of its powers from the public, and is answerable to the public. That’s what government of, for and by the people means.
It is unfortunate that state and federal laws are needed to protect the public’s right to know.
Of course, we know those laws are needed, and often must be leveraged by people requesting even the most basic information from elected and appointed officials.
No branch of government should exempt itself from freedom of information laws, and no person in government should seek to circumvent those laws.
Accessing government information and attending deliberative meetings should simply be viewed as democracy in action and not as an adversarial relationship between the governing and the governed.
Government secrecy that goes beyond national security is fundamentally wrong.
Therefore, records custodians at city hall, the county courthouse, the public school system or the state capitol must not bristle when a person asks for public records. The records requesters are simply asking for a copy of what belongs to them already.
Records requesters should not create an unnecessarily hostile relationship when making requests.
A records request and fulfillment should be a basic, ordinary transaction between government and the public it serves.
City council, county commission, a board of education, the General Assembly and its committees should not balk at the public’s right to attend meetings and should not look for every excuse to retreat into an executive session or closed-door meeting.
Attending meetings, sitting in on deliberations, understanding not only what decisions are reached but how those decisions are reached are all things which are simply basic American rights, fundamental to living in an open and free society.
In our politically charged, polarized, vitriolic climate today, there seems to be very little conservatives and progressives can agree on.
The public’s right to know is one thing that everyone, both in and out of government, both left and right leaning, and at the local, state and federal levels, should agree on.
We are the government. The government is us.
It is, therefore, everyone’s fundamental right to know what government is, and is not, doing.