Our Opinion: Your government should be an open book; but is it?

March 16th, 2016 10:09 am

Ignore politics? Plenty of people, maybe you, pretend their lives and government don’t intertwine, so they can simply ignore all that official mumbo jumbo.

But then, as in Flint, Michigan, something goes terribly wrong. Suddenly “politics” is spewing out of the kitchen faucet.

Or, as in Bell, California, city officials are found to have vastly inflated their salaries and pensions, collecting six-figure sums for their “public service” in a community with a per capita income below $25,000.

Or, as in Harrisburg, certain justices on the state’s highest court are revealed to be swapping racist and smut-filled emails.

Or, in your home mailbox perhaps, the latest property tax bill shows the amount due has gone up significantly over the prior year, again. Is the jump justified? How can you tell?

This week – known in journalism circles as Sunshine Week – we ask you to consider the topic of “transparency” and how much you know, or don’t know, about the inner workings of your state, county and local governments, including your school board. The tasks they do, the documents they create, even the emails (raunchy and otherwise) they send, rightfully belong to the public. You typically should have access to it, not be kept in the dark.

Sunshine Week serves as a reminder that civic involvement doesn’t begin and end in the voting booth. You need to routinely question decisions made for you, or about you, and expect the public’s business to be conducted at meetings open for all to see and hear. Likewise, expect public records to be accessible in a timely manner for your review.

Check to see, for instance, if on the websites of your local municipality and school board you easily can find agendas for upcoming meetings, minutes of prior sessions and accounts of spending. If not, contact your leaders and ask why. It is, after all, 2016; technology allows for instantaneous sharing of most everything. (If your child can update a Facebook site multiple times a day, or an hour, surely your government can manage to regularly post new information online about its goings-on.)

“Freedom of information” might not be a phrase that rolls off of your lips 52 weeks a year, but the concept remains critical to good government. Recognize that fact and expect your elected officials to also.

Don’t kid yourself that all those decisions made behind closed doors or in near-empty council chambers are somehow remote from your daily activities and welfare, even inconsequential. Often times, the opposite is true. Those decisions can directly impact your life – for better or, as we have seen in many cases, for worse.