Let the sunshine in

We are, we admit, incessant nags when it comes to government openness and transparency. That’s especially true this week, which has been designated Sunshine Week by the National Newspaper Association and other groups. Sunshine Week focuses on “Your Right to Know.”

Regular readers of these pages know we have, just since the beginning of this year, complained about the lack of transparency in certain actions of the Mesa County commissioners, School District 51 officials and the Obama administration.

There are several reasons for this insistent demand for more open government. Primary among them is this: Elected officials and government employees work for the voters who put them into office or who pay the bills with their taxes. Those voters and taxpayers have a right to know what their elected officials are doing and how tax money is being spent.

Imagine you owned a business, but your employees refused to tell you what they were doing or how they were spending your money. You would be rightfully incensed. We taxpayers own our government, and government employees have just as great an obligation to keep us informed.

A second reason to seek transparency in government is that closed government breeds disrespect. Just last week, the Pew Research Center released poll results showing that three out of four Americans distrust the federal government.

It’s no coincidence that trust in government is so low at the same time as federal agencies are using claims of national security to deny more public requests for records than ever before, according to an Associated Press story. An ACLU attorney quoted in the article said the Obama administration has been even more aggressive on secrecy than the Bush administration.

People don’t trust officials who won’t tell them what’s happening with their government. Given that, we’re constantly astonished by the number of elected officials and government administrators whose first reaction to requests for information is to close doors, lock up documents and operate in secrecy.

When this newspaper or other news media make FOIA requests or demand access to meetings or documents, we are often accused of searching for scandal. That’s just a distraction by those seeking to keep public information secret.

What is true, however, is that too often when government entities seek to keep information from the public, there’s something tawdry, if not illegal, going on. And that simply breeds more citizen mistrust.

The public legally has a right to know, and we in the media have a responsibility to hold government entities’ feet to the fire on rules that require open meetings, accessibility to documents and more. Furthermore, the open records and open meetings laws aren’t just for those of us in the media. They protect every citizen of this country and provide each of them with avenues to examine and challenge government actions.

But newspapers have been among the loudest voices in support of government transparency and have done the most to push for and protect laws that demand transparency.

We hope all citizens will join us in those efforts this Sunshine Week and every week of the year.

In any event, we’ll keep nagging about transparency.


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