Don't let national politics distract from problems in local government
Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government transparency, kicks off today. This year, journalists might be tempted to turn critical eyes toward Washington, D.C. The recently departed Obama administration never delivered on its promise to be the most transparent in history, and the new Trump administration seems to have an equal or even greater taste for secrecy. Heck, last year saw public records and the proper — or improper — handling of them help decide the presidential election.
There’s plenty of red meat to go after in the nation’s capital, but the obvious target is not always the best target.
Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what governments at all levels do. The Freedom of Information Act and the state public records and open meetings laws it spawned do not exist to serve journalists. They exist to empower the people to hold their government accountable. Journalists play an essential role in informing the public, but the tools of transparency are for everyone. For example, they are widely used economic tools as a myriad of industries rely on public records to plan, check up on rivals and prepare for public-private contracts.
We in the media sometimes forget all of that, and so do lawmakers.
I recently testified at a state legislative hearing on a bill that would set timelines for responding to public records requests. Journalists queued up to tell the senators why the bill was important, but the general public was notably lacking from the room. They weren’t excluded; they just didn’t show up.
When it was my turn to speak, I used the opportunity to remind everyone that the bill under consideration was for all residents, not just journalists.
Most people lack the time to visit a statehouse hearing in the middle of a workday, but their place in the sunshine almost always should supersede the self-importance of the press and the penchant for secrecy of the government.
When I was done speaking, one senator took issue with that view. “You said this wasn’t a bill just for journalists,” he stated. “I’d be more comfortable if it was because I do trust (journalists) to get the information and be responsible in the mainstream media.”
That senator, himself a former journalist, called out political opponents, candidates and bloggers. In his view, they use public records laws to cause problems, advance political agendas or try to get even. He suggested that maybe journalists deserve access but the public does not, or at least the members of the public who cause headaches for him and his fellows.
Down that slippery slope lies great peril.
Public records must not be the privilege of only the government-sanctioned few.
When the media don’t pay attention, secrecy entrenches itself. Local governments withhold details of investigations from parents or neighborhoods. State lawmakers, at the behest of special interests, pass creative exemptions to public records laws that move more information behind the wall of secrecy. Public officials high and low play fast and loose with their electronic communications, texting discussions to avoid scrutiny.
Those are the things the media and other watchdogs must focus on during Sunshine Week and every week.
Rest assured, there will be plenty of coverage of the Trump administration. The big media outlets — The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc. — the national blogs and other sources will cover and comment the hell out of the national open government news. If The (Portland) Oregonian, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Richmond Times-Dispatch and other papers weigh in, their commentary may be lost in the DC din. But when they editorialize about transparency in Oregon, Ohio or Virginia, they can lead the conversation that every community should have.
Watchdogs must not allow Washington red meat to distract them.