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Openness is government for all

Posted: March 17, 2015 - 11:10pm  |  Updated: March 18, 2015 - 12:03am

“For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.” — John 3:20


National Sunshine Week got off to an inauspicious start on Monday, when the White House quietly gave notice that it would no longer be subject the Freedom of Information Act.

The announcement wasn’t posted on the White House Facebook page or shared through pithy 140-character snippets on Twitter, or even a run-of-the-mill press release. It was filed in the Federal Register under the title “Removal of Published Rules to Align Published Policy with Current Sources of Law.”

The Federal Register is chocked full of wonderful documents, such a “Standards of Performance for New Residential Wood Heaters,” or “Regulations for Managing Harvest of Light Goose Populations.”

So, you can see if you wanted to announce that you were going to exempt yourself from public oversight of confess to a series of horrible murders, the Federal Register would be a good place to do that. Lucky for us, there are still a few bored newspaper reporters out there who actually read this stuff. Because that’s what we do.

Sunshine Week, in case you didn’t know, is an annual observance promoting open government and freedom of information. So, you cane see why the White House notice appeared to more than a little ironic, especially from a president who claims to run “the most transparent administration in history.”

President Obama’s record on that account can be characterized as a mixed bag at best. Early on he did push for some reforms and many federal agencies have implemented new procedures and better technology for sharing information with the public.

On the other hand, the same administration has also been the most controlling, when it comes to giving the press access and has been plagued with incidents in which “openness” was obviously not the motive or the result. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s e-mail account is a good example. The is one reason for having your e-mails on a private server, to avoid public scrutiny.

The Obama administration also has another feather in its cap, having prosecuted more individuals for leaking secret government information under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined.

So transparency can be defined in different ways, depending on what information is being sought and who wants it. Not really.

But why should you care?

Most people will probably never find themselves in a situation in which they need to request government records under the Freedom of Information Act. Most will also never need to file an open records request under Georgia law.

But some of you might.

Laws that provide access to open records are put in place to ensure that the general public can find out what the government is doing on its behalf. It rests on simple concept, that the government works for the people and the records it keeps belong to its citizens.

It really seems like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised how often government officials at all levels choose to ignore or subvert the law when regular people come asking for documents.

In my experience it can be hit or miss, depending on who you are dealing with. Columbia County is one of the examples of how good government should work. I have never had any request that was not immediately fulfilled.

But that kind of open government requires commitment on the part of county leadership to make it happen. Over the years, I’ve also had plenty of run-ins with bureaucrats who didn’t understand the law and didn’t care whether they were violating it.

Which is why Sunshine Week exists. As citizens we must not only know our rights, but we must also exercise them.

I’m not advocating petty harassment of government officials, or flooding your local county office with hundreds of open records requests.

I am however, asking that each of do our part in creating the type of government we want. An open government is good government.

We should attend some public meetings, ask questions about the things we don’t understand and seek information that will help us make informed decisions.

As members of the press, it is our job to work on the behalf of my readers to keep them informed. But that doesn’t mean we have special powers our authority to seek the information we publish each day.

Every citizen has just as much right to get access to the documents that reporters regularly get. We just have more practice doing it.

So the next time you find yourself in a government office and you want to know something, ask. It is your right and the information you seek actually belongs to you.



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