American news media will mark Sunshine Week during the coming seven days, a time when we promote our efforts to keep the light of public scrutiny shining on state and local government.
Whatever side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, everyone should support the idea of elected officials conducting the public’s business in the open.
These elected officials aren’t spending the state’s money or the county’s money or, heaven forbid, their own money. They are spending our money. And they should be held accountable each step along the way by discussing issues and making decisions in open meetings.
Sunshine Week was created in 2005 to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and a major architect of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, according to Pam Fine, Knight Chair for News, Leadership and Community at the University of Kansas. Madison and others championed the First Amendment to prevent the kind of tyranny colonists faced from King George III who prevented newspapers critical of him from publishing during the American Revolution.
According to Fine, Madison said: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
We often hear promise from politicians, usually during campaigns, about the value of transparency in government and pledges to be sure voters know what’s going on. Then after the election, doors close and barriers go up to block the public’s access to information. In Illinois, legislators even exempted themselves from the state’s open records and open meeting laws.
There are certain issues where the laws allow secret discussions — the acquisition of property, personnel, pending litigation and economic development incentives, to name a few. But the final votes must be conducted in open session, on the record.
Officials who don’t believe the public — the people who votes put him or her into office — should be kept in the dark deserve to be replaced as quickly as possible. Their interests are not focused on the public good, but on their own priorities.
When people blindly trust their elected leaders by accepting everything they say as accurate or allowing them to conduct secret deals, it damages everyone’s freedom. Support the public’s right to know, and refuse to allow governmental officials to be the only source of information on any topic.