Let’s all agree: It is time for some sunshine!
Sure, we’d like some warm summer sun about now. But more immediately, this week, March 15 through 21, is Sunshine Week, designated to shine a light on freedom of information and open government.
Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors, and is now coordinated with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The goal of Sunshine Week is to remind all citizens -- not just journalists -- of the importance of transparency at all levels of government.
Whether that is property tax information, or city council votes, or the salary for a new superintendent hire at the school district, these and many more pieces of information are the business of the public. Open records or open meetings laws allow us all to be a part of that process.
Sunshine -- that ultimate disinfectant, the kind of bright light that makes dark-corner bugs run in fear -- is essential to keeping our government running efficiently and ethically.
And, while journalists are usually the front line for defending public information, that work is done on behalf of all citizens.
The old adage “use it or lose it” sums it up very well: If the public does not attend public meetings, it gets easier and easier for those officials to start to slip. Maybe they don’t publicize a meeting with enough notice by law; maybe they discuss issues privately when the topic doesn’t meet the standards for a closed meeting.
And our open government laws can always be made stronger -- and many are always at risk.
Public notices, for instance -- those “legal” ads in the Classifieds section of the paper -- are required by law to be published by the official designated newspaper in that area. But councils and commissions around the country argue that that publication cost is onerous and that they can publish their notices on their own websites.
But as rural residents know, not everyone is on the internet. Publication in a paper and online will reach more people, of more demographics, in more places than the government website ever could.
As I am a new resident of Minnesota, I have been learning all about our state, county and municipal laws and regulations as it relates to open government. I would ask you, longtime residents, what parts of our government could use a little sunshine? We are your watchdogs … point us in the direction.
In more immediate terms, here are some things any citizen can do this week to take part in Sunshine Week:
Attend a public meeting. The Becker County Board of Commissioners meets Tuesday morning, March 17, at 8:15 a.m., for instance. Get a first-hand look at how your government operates.
Request a document. Visit city or county offices; at the city, usually at the clerk’s office, request to see a building permit for an address you are interested in. At the county courthouse, ask how you can see court records for an ongoing case.
Thank a public official. Do always let our representatives know that their work is appreciated. And be sure to note how important it is for them to conduct their business in the open, and to continue to enhance and defend the public’s right to know.
For more information on Sunshine Week, visit http://sunshineweek.org/.
Contact Detroit Lakes Tribune Editor J.J. Perry at 218-844-1466, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @jjperry on Twitter.