Shining a light on public data

by Guest Columnist Ivan Raconteur.

I am not usually a fan of special designations for days or weeks, but Sunshine Week (March 13-19) is one I will gladly support.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to promote a dialog about the importance of open government, freedom of information, and the public’s right to know.

This is a right we sometimes take for granted.

Americans know there are places in the world, far away countries under the control of some dictator or totalitarian regime, where there is no such thing as public information or where public information is manufactured by the government, but that can’t happen here.

We know there are places where there is no expectation of open meetings or transparency in government, but that can’t happen here.

That is what we want to believe. The trouble is, it simply isn’t true.

Even with the laws we have in place in this country, public information and openness in government are not automatic. They are preserved only by the daily vigilance of journalists and other citizens.

To some, that statement may seem overly dramatic. As one who has spent thousands of hours covering government meetings, law enforcement agencies, and other public institutions, I can assure you it is not.

This does not mean that government officials are involved in some elaborate plan to deprive us of public data.

It means that without constant oversight, the precious public data we have come to expect will be eroded in a thousand small ways.

Part of this is due to human nature.

One can see why elected officials would find it easier to make difficult decisions behind closed doors, but that doesn’t mean we should let them do so.

The spirit of Sunshine Week and the open meeting law are based on the idea that the best and fairest decisions are those made in the light of day under public scrutiny.

That is why it is so important for us to insist that public data remains public.

In some cases, failure to provide public information may simply reflect a lack of understanding.

Elected officials, city or county staff members, or law enforcement representatives may not know what is and isn’t public information, and may err on the side of caution when deciding if they should release information.

It doesn’t matter why information is withheld, or why decisions are made in private. The result is the same – citizens lose.

There have recently been attempts to eliminate the requirement for public entities to publish public notices in newspapers.

Often, proponents use cost as a justification for this.

Newspapers have been publishing these items for a long time, and can do it more efficiently and economically than public bodies can.

There is also something unsettling about leaving these matters in the hands of the entities involved, rather than an independent third party.

Any time Uncle Sam or his minions say, “Trust me,” I get nervous.

There is something about having to rely on the government to do the right thing that gives me the heebie-jeebies.

When something is published in a newspaper, it becomes part of the permanent record. It is what it is, and it cannot be changed.

When something is published only on a website, particularly a government website, that is not the case.

I have looked at enough websites maintained by public entities to cast serious doubt on their ability to do so in a timely, accurate manner.

I have checked city websites looking for the agendas for council meetings to find out what is going to be discussed, only to find that they are not posted until after the meeting, even though they are provided to council members days in advance.

I have tried to look up minutes for a meeting to check information, only to find that the city or county in question is weeks or months behind in posting the minutes online.

I see no reason to expect things would be any different if the public bodies were the only place this information was published.

Finally, I am cynical enough to believe that there is nothing to keep information from changing if the government is left in control of it.

What assurance do we have that information won’t be altered or simply disappear if the content becomes inconvenient for the governmental agency that controls it?

I wouldn’t care to risk it.

One might also suggest that having well-compensated public employees spending time maintaining websites that few people ever visit isn’t a good business decision for taxpayers.

I commend those elected officials and public employees who understand and support the need for openness and public information, and I hope that those who don’t will soon get on board.

I will continue to attend public meetings and report what I see, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I will do this because I believe shining a light on public bodies helps them to do the right thing, and because the public has a right to know.

I encourage all citizens to do the same when they have a chance.

Attending a meeting once in awhile or talking to elected officials lets them know that people care, and, perhaps more importantly, that people are watching.

Having access to public information is our right. Making sure that public information stays public is our responsibility.

Ivan is the Editor of the Winsted Waverly Howard Lake Herald Journal.  Originally published in the Herald Journal.

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