Shining a light on public information

March 14, 2016
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

The Swedish philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok said more than 30 years ago that guaranteeing public access to government information “is indispensable in the long run for any democratic society ... If officials make public only what they want citizens to know, then publicity becomes a sham and accountability meaningless.”

That fundamental tenet lies at the heart of Sunshine Week, which started Sunday and continues through Saturday. It’s a national initiative that’s near and dear to the hearts of journalists, since it focuses on openness in government and freedom of information, but it should be embraced by every citizen who wants to see our democracy function honestly and efficiently.

Sunshine Week was launched in 2005 by American Society of News Editors, and takes place in mid-March every year to coincide with the birthday of James Madison, the United States’ fourth president and a champion of open government. Along with the reporters and editors who inhabit newsrooms, an array of civic organizations, nonprofit groups and historians now actively participate. In the next several days, there will be forums and conferences around the country focusing on everything from the Flint, Mich., water crisis and how public documents were unearthed to tell that story, to how outside parties can influence local elections.

Here in Pennsylvania, Melissa Melewsky, the media law counsel for Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review she still hears absurd tales about, to cite one example, 30-day legal reviews to determine whether salary records are public.

“Those should be provided proactiovely to the extent possible,” she said. “Granted, I don’t hear about it when things go right, because that’s not the role we fill. Many agencies do it the right way.”

Indeed, we found in our sleuthing there are municipalities within our circulation area that are doing it the right way. As a story that appeared in the Sunday Observer-Reporter outlined, officials in Peters and North Strabane townships created easy-to-navigate websites that have links to meeting agendas and minutes. Frank Siffrinn, North Strabane’s township manager, said transparency “provides for an informed and educated public and media which, in return, facilitates and promotes good governance.”

We did find, however, there are some municipalities that would profit if they followed the examples of Peters and North Strabane. Waynesburg Borough does not put agendas or minutes online, while Monongahela did not provide meeting minutes within five days of our request, even though they do post audio recordings of meetings online. The City of Washington yielded more mixed results, with council meeting minutes being posted online, on one hand, while, on the other, an employee of this newspaper had to visit City Hall to get a meeting agenda, and then the clerk thought she needed the mayor’s permission to make a copy.

During this week, and in every other week of the year, keep the following thought in mind: Yes, elected officials govern us, but they don’t “rule” us like monarchs or dictators. We have the right to know how our tax dollars are being spent, how decisions are made, and the paper trail that accompanies these decisions. Being able to see government records is a right, not a privilege.



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