Editorial: Let the sunshine in
Those with an interest in government transparency know that, even in today’s broader and more scattered media landscape, newspapers are typically at the forefront of pressing government to keep the books open. This is “Sunshine Week,” a time of year promoted by the American Association of Newspaper Editors to remind Americans what we have a right to know, and it’s a good time to underscore the fact that even a small community like Summit County is not immune to breaches in the Freedom of Information Act – as well as what can be maddening examples of information roadblocks both deliberate and unintentional.
Every day, government agencies ranging from our local towns and courts all the way to the federal government release vast amounts of information of interest to the public. Oftentimes, though, this information is released in an outmoded manner – a sheet of paper in a folder placed in a file cabinet overseen by a single gatekeeper who works 9-5 Monday through Friday with an hour off at lunch. At the Summit Daily, we are often frustrated trying to get public records from agencies such as local law enforcement or the Summit Combined Courts. We’ll be told a particular record is “with the judge” or the lawyer or someone else, so with only one copy available, the sharing of that information can be, at best problematic. Have these agencies, we can’t help wonder, ever heard of this thing called “The Internet?”
Compared to things like independent blogs or even most radio and smaller TV stations, newspapers work together by retaining media-law specialists who help us make our case when we think things are being guarded too strictly, or when legal exemptions are being exaggerated. But we – and the public – can always use more help getting the sunshine in. The Summit Daily News supports new legislation being sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation that would require all public, government-held information to be made available online. As the Foundation states:
“This legislation follows Sunlight’s ethos that ‘public equals online.’ That is, whatever information the government collects and discloses must be freely accessible online, in a format that can be downloaded and parsed by any citizen. In the 21st century, information is properly described as “public” only if it is available online, 24/7, for free, in a machine-readable format.”
This being 2010, it may be difficult to believe this isn’t already the case, but in fact only some states have robust online records archives, and in the absence of a mandate from Congress, federal, state and local agencies (which, granted, have plenty on their plates) have little incentive to improve the situation. Even promises of more openness from the Obama administration hasn’t led to better FOIA compliance: A recent Associated Press investigation revealed the federal government routinely over-uses exemptions to FOIA to hide records. Locally, we saw this tendency to hide just recently in Breckenridge, when the town council met behind closed doors to discuss the Mercy Housing/Valleybrook situation. Oftentimes, such “contract negotiations” are protected under Colorado Sunshine laws, but even one town councilmember thought it was unjustified.
All of us in the media and private citizens as well should always ask “why” when some government official tells us we can’t see or hear something. If we stop asking and demanding better access, government on all levels will take this as a message that we don’t care. But we do, and our right to know is dependent on an active media, a persistent public and, yes, public officials who prefer to work in the open as much as possible.
So ask why, don’t take “no” for an answer, call the newspaper if you think something’s amiss and, yes, let the sunshine in.
-The Summit Daily Editorial Board consists of Jim Morgan, Alex Miller, Ryan Wondercheck, Matt Sandberg, Jim Ernst and Miles Porter.
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