In the sunshine: Open records and open government

Journalists come to their profession motivated to serve the public good, protect the public welfare and strengthen the Fourth Estate.

Chief among our concerns as reporters, editors and publishers is safeguarding open records and open government. We cannot have good government without an open government, without government that operates visibly, in the sunlight.

James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution, wrote “consent of the governed” requires that the people be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Each March, for Madison’s birthday, we celebrate Sunshine Week. Journalists and others who work in media, along with our press associations, watchdog organizations and civil liberties groups, trumpet the value of transparency and warn against the damage that society suffers without it, such as during the dark days of the notorious Nixon years.

Sunshine Week dates to Sunshine Sunday in 2002, which came in response to efforts to carve up one of the strongest public records laws in the country and create new records exemptions in Florida.

By 2005, the sunshine movement had gone national.

Keeping government in the sunshine is not a left or right issue or a partisan matter. For proof, look to the Open Government Traveling Show making its way around Wisconsin. To present 90-minute programs on the open records law, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists are joining with the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the Center for Media and Democracy and the conservative MacIver Institute for Public Policy and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Representatives of those groups, as well as Madison attorney April Barker, are traveling March 15–17 to La Crosse, Eau Claire, Wausau, Green Bay, Appleton, Sheboygan, Waukesha and Janesville to talk about the freedom of information and protecting public access to government records. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism also is involved.

In Wisconsin, we’re fighting to protect our laws from an administration that’s shown a blatant disregard for the public’s right to know.

We united last summer to defeat an overhaul of the state public records law, dodging a sneak attack on open government that Republicans launched as we celebrated the country’s independence.

Yet, we must remain vigilant because attacks on open government continue in Wisconsin.

Remember, every citizen in our participatory democracy has an inherent right to access government meetings and public records. Open and accessible government is vital to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in lawmakers and other elected officials. Without such knowledge, the people are powerless.

For Sunshine Week, we encourage you to share a pledge with your elected officials and appointed clerks who keep government records:

  • Government meetings must be properly promoted and open to the public.
  • Government agencies or departments must accept, as a minimum, information requests by phone, mail, over the counter or online.
  • Information requests must be responded to promptly.
  • Government departments and agencies must keep a log of information requests.
  • Governments must post on-site and online records that are likely to be the subject of repeated requests, including contracts that exceed $5,000.

Sunshine Week is for all of us to celebrate. Catch some rays.