Today marks the start of Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information.
Indeed, Americans should appreciate that they have unprecedented access to their government. The foundation of self-rule is that government derives all of its powers from the public and is answerable to the public.
Unfortunately, government officials aren't always keen to share what they're up to. That's why we have sunshine laws — to protect the public's right to know.
Jim Zachary, the editor of the Valdosta Times, reminds us of the government's obligation to openly account for its actions:
"From the courthouse, to the statehouse to the White House, it is your right to know what government is up to.
"Every deliberation by city council, county commission, the General Assembly or U.S. Congress is the people's business.
"Every penny spent by local, state and federal government is your money.
"Every document held in the halls of government belongs to you."
The point is simple. When it comes to the people's business, no one should be kept in the dark. Sunshine laws exist so that anyone — not just the media — can know exactly what elected officials, heads of public agencies, government employees and the institutions themselves are up to.
But sunshine laws are only as useful as we make them. Too often such laws must be leveraged by people to extract the most basic information from government officials.
Last week the Grand Junction City Council provided a disturbing example of how easily the public's right to know can be compromised.
The Daily Sentinel's Duffy Hayes made a request under the Colorado Open Records Act for any document or record related to a City Council proclamation on inclusivity.
The request generated a 500-page response, but did not include an email from Council member Phyllis Norris to city resident Keira Havens who was pushing for the council to read and pass the wide-ranging proclamation.
That email reads in part, "I as a white woman do not believe the very people you claim to be discriminated against have a right to discriminate against me and to do their best to bully me because I am of the opinion that all people deserve to be respected."
The missing email was later provided after the Sentinel asked about its existence, with Norris apologizing for "overlooking" it.
We'll let readers draw their own conclusion about how the one email that could be perceived as unflattering to Norris is the only one that didn't get turned over. But the bigger point is that this attempt to withhold public information could have succeeded if Hayes didn't already know about the email's existence.
In other words, we don't know what we don't know and it's ludicrous, bordering on offensive, for the city to have ever had a policy allowing council members to be the custodians of their own records.
In light of the flap, the city has decided to change the way it processes open records requests that involve email messages. Rather than rely on councilors themselves to search their devices and turn over relevant emails — the process that has been in place for years, and is most often used to fulfill requests — city staff now will access a centralized database of information and use software to cull results.
"This (incident) I believe brought to light a potential flaw in the process," City Manager Greg Caton said.
Caton is right. It was a flaw and the city was right to fix it. Council members took umbrage at the suggestion that Norris' oversight was anything more than a simple mistake. But the flaw she exposed may have resulted in secrets we'll never know about.
We can only guess how many text messages are passed between council members. If Caton and company truly want to be perceived as open and transparent, the city's attorney and IT staff will begin studying how to make ALL electronic communication available under an Open Records request.
Remember, every document in the halls of government belongs to us. That includes digital and electronic communications on personal devices of government officials.