This is Sunshine Week across the country.
It’s a time when newspapers, press organizations and journalists extol the virtues of open government and promote the importance of access to public information.
Freedom of information isn’t just a press issue. It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It is relevant to every American.
Open access to government helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said it best when he referred to the benefits of openness and transparency in government: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Despite its importance, open government isn’t always an easy cause to champion. While many people respect the concept, open government isn’t the kind of issue that gets people marching in the streets.
It is an even tougher sell to elected officials. Open government is akin to ethics reform to most politicians. They pay it lip service in public but scatter when it comes time to do anything meaningful about it legislatively.
That happened again last week in the Missouri Legislature where a hearing was held on changes to the Missouri Sunshine Law. The law sets out the legal requirements for notices of public meetings, ensures public access to government records and carves out the specific instances when a meeting, record or vote may be closed.
The law, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, clearly states that the public policy of the state is that meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.
But as straightforward as that edict is, enforcing the Sunshine Law has always been a challenge. So, over the years, there have been numerous attempts to improve the law to make it work as intended. This year is no different.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has re-introduced a bill that would make it easier to prosecute a Sunshine Law violation by changing the burden of proof and the legal standard. His bill would also lower the penalty to a $100 civil fine from the current penalty of up to a $1,000.
Yet, there was plenty of opposition to the bill from a stream of individuals representing taxpayer-paid interest groups like the Missouri Municipal League and the Missouri Association of Counties at a Senate committee hearing last week.
Those groups, who represent elected officials, resist any effort that would hold their clients accountable for violating the Sunshine Law even when the efforts lessen the penalties.
Tensions between government officials, journalists and watchdog groups over access to government are nothing new in this country. But many observers are troubled by what they see as a declining transparency that is being abetted by public apathy, according to an Associated Press report on open government.
It’s never been easy to shine a light into the recesses of government secrecy. There has always been push-back from those who are uncomfortable under the bright light of scrutiny.
But it’s more important than ever in this era of heightened government secrecy that the light remains trained and bright.