Sunshine week creeped up on me this year. I was thinking I had another week but received a notice on Friday about it starting March 12th. As you know it is a subject near and dear to my heart. It’s something I advocate regularly and it’s a battle we have always fought in the world of newspaper.
You see, it’s your tax monies being spent by local governments and as such, you the citizen, have a right to know how that money is being spent — how much and on what. Government is to be for the people and by the people.
A lot of elected officials in Washington seem to have forgotten that fact. But in our communities, it is the local government which impacts us on a daily basis. From property taxes, sales taxes, business taxes, loans and even federal grants, is where local governments get their money — 100 percent of it.
When governments don’t want the public to know where the money is going and they want to operate behind closed doors, government becomes irresponsible, prone to corruption and eventually spins out of control.
They need to be held accountable and the only way to do that is through transparency. That means having access to every document they hold because it belongs to you the citizens. Transparency has nothing to do with politics and is non- partisan.
As a citizen you have the right just as much as this newspaper, to ask for a copy of a budget or minutes or question whether or not they can go into a closed executive session which excludes the public.
Those politicians and government officials who feel they are more productive in a private meeting, fail to give citizens enough credit and don’t have faith that citizens are smart enough to judge the decisions which are made. You see democracy dies behind the closed doors of government.
Freedom of information isn’t just a problem for the press. It’s the foundation of democracy which enlightens and empowers citizens to play an active role in government at all levels. Transparency helps keep public officials honest, government more efficient and provides a check against abuses of power.
I do not believe the freedom of information act and open records laws were coined for journalists. I believe they were forged to empower citizens in holding government accountable. As journalists and the fourth estate we are watchdogs for the people. When citizens can’t attend public meetings, journalists are there taking notes and then writing stories to keep the citizenry informed. Lawmakers tend to forget that fact at times and some journalists do as well. As journalists, we need to pay attention to what’s going on and look beneath the surface at times. If we don’t, secrecy can entrench itself and the slope is slippery from there on down.
Journalists — real cut and dried ones — get a bad rap at times these days because we are lumped in with the mainstream media. I have always considered myself a community journalist and therefore here to serve the community and help keep a watch on how government is spending tax monies and to report on what the government is doing as accurately as is humanly possible. I feel blessed that we also get to tell the stories of people as well. We do make mistakes. Mistakes that embarrass us occasionally. When that happens we try to own it and correct it and then keep moving.
Governments sometimes make the mistake of thinking it’s better not to inform the public on certain issues. Believe you me, that is not the case. Citizens are more likely to accept a decision if they understand why it was made in the first place. Otherwise, there are many rumors and innuendos that just make things worse if a government is not forthcoming with documents and information. Even if a government makes a mistake it is best to admit it and ask forgiveness. Citizens seem to deal better with that than with a cover up.
Many distrust the government and it is because of things done in the dark behind closed doors when it should have been in the light for the public to witness. Rebuilding trust for government needs to start with the presumption that everything belongs to the people which makes it public. Of course, there are a few exceptions covered under open meetings laws which as a journalist, I understand.
But governments also must show trust for community journalists and work with them. It’s a two-way street.
Elected officials are servants of the people and as government officers they need to let the sun shine in and let the people see what they are doing on their behalf.
If what we do, or us asking questions makes our elected officials nervous, then perhaps they shouldn’t have run for office.
Citizens have a right to know and should demand accountability from the local government. Help us keep their feet to the fire and celebrate Sunshine Week with us. ©2017
VICTORIA SIMMONS is an author, columnist, motivational speaker, minister and publisher of The Georgia Post/Byron Buzz. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org