Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sunshine Week

This week is known throughout the newspaper industry as Sunshine Week.

This is not because the sun is shining brilliantly from the sky.

This is, instead, a spotlight on information and your right to know what your government is doing.

These laws fall under The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The first such laws in the United States were enacted in 1966.

The Swedish were far ahead of us; they were ensuring fair government in the 1700s. We took a while to catch up.

Anyone can file a Freedom of Information Act request with local, state, or federal government. Newspaper reporters are well aware of the laws because without it, their job can be more difficult.

For instance, FOIA is the reason that you have public hearings on the sale of government-owned property. It is the reason you can sit in on a local government board or committee meeting. Under FOIA, if you think the government is doing something it shouldn't, you can ask for specific documents or even challenge an action in court, if the government does something wrong.

For example, if your local governing body goes into a closed meeting to talk about an issue and it is not something exempt from these laws (personnel matters are generally exempt, for example), then you might need to take those folks before a judge so they can explain their actions.

As a citizen, I believe in open government. Our representatives are being paid with tax dollars and we elect them in democratic elections. Everything they do when they are working on our behalf should be available to us for review. I understand when matters of personnel or national security are involved that some things are better not divulged, but even so, there should be - there must be - accountability of some kind, even if I never know about it. Without accountability, the country (or the locality) becomes nothing more than a dictatorship by committee.

Some people do not believe in open government. I suppose they think the folks running things should have their secrets, for whatever reason. Often, the people running things do not want the taxpayers to know what they are doing. Perhaps they fear a backlash, or they are, in fact, doing something they know folks would dislike. Big corporations making deals with the government would rather keep their actions secret. But secrecy in and of itself should never be condoned, nor should keeping the public unaware be a goal of good government. A government that has secrecy as its goal is a government to be overthrown.

The Freedom of Information Acts give the public power because it allows you to hold government accountable. Officials frequently want to take this power away, which is why there are changes proposed to the state FOIA at every General Assembly Session. Someone doesn't want you - you the citizen, you the taxpayer, you the voter - to know what is going on.

When you see that your legislators are seeking changes to FOIA, you might ask yourself why. What are they trying to hide?

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For information on how the federal government deals with information, check out this new website, ethics.gov.

A guide to the federal Freedom of Information Act is here.

Virginia has an advisory council with information on the state Freedom of Information Act. You can access it here.

A copy of Virginia's 2011 Freedom of Information Act can be found here.

Check your state for a copy of your FOIA. You might be surprised at the things you can find out.

2 comments:

  1. Open government is yet another thing the currently republican controlled House and Senate are trying to abolish here. Much easier to dupe people behind closed doors. They have also tried banning cameras/camera cell phones from those sessions that are open. It makes one wonder what they are trying to hide.

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  2. The FOIA is great except for the fact that they make it unaffordable for most people to get the information. If you want to see something, they charge you an arm and a leg.

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