Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sunshine Week

This is Sunshine Week, which a period when newspapers and other media point out that open government is good government.

Unfortunately, in spite of the internet and what seems to be an overflow of information, we really live in a time of great secrecy when it comes to how individuals and groups deal with public funds. I see it at the local, state, and federal levels. Monies change hands and the public remains unaware.

As newspapers in particular have fallen by the wayside, with few readers and fewer reporters, local governments in particular have no watchdog to keep them on their toes. No one is attending the local council meetings at towns, for instance, where hundreds of thousands of dollars are being used for . . . whatever. Hopefully for the public good, but without someone to pay attention, how does anyone know?

One nearby town in recent years learned that a trusted employee had embezzled a great deal of money. That's a singular example, but how does anyone know that someone isn't writing a check for $200 for a tire but actually pocketing $50 of it? Without oversight and accountability, the public doesn't know.

And then there are plans and improvements and other uses that the public rarely or barely has a say in. Maybe you don't want a statue in the courthouse yard, but suddenly there it is. Or maybe you want more money for the library, but instead you find that there are no new books being purchased for the year because money has been diverted to sports or something.

Newspapers in the old days (which makes me sound old, good grief), were considered "the fourth estate." Newspapers held significant power to point out and advocate for change. The local newspaper was the "paper of record" and supposedly everything of importance was recorded in the paper. The local reporters kept an eye on things, questioned what was going on, and raised a ruckus when something didn't look right.

I have always been a strong advocate of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws, and have had to use those laws at various times. In one county I covered (not where I live and work now), the FOIA became a vital resource for citizens as a school board went amuck with public funding. So too when a local official used public funds to keep her house from foreclosure.

Little by little, though, the legislatures at the state and federal levels are chipping away at the public's right to know. Virginia's FOIA has a lot of exceptions that allow local and state officials to go into "closed" meetings, where the public has no idea what is discussed. It takes a level of trust to keep from wondering if they really do "discuss only what we went into the meeting to discuss" during those talks behind closed doors.

I, for one, never trust a politician, so I always take those promises with a shrug. I have no way to disprove their word, though later events might make me question when, exactly, did they talk about thus and such. By then, though, the deeds are done and it is too late.

If you believe the public has a right to know, I urge you to become familiar with your state's FOIA laws. You can learn more about Virginia's FOIA by visiting the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council website.

Ask your local representatives to abide by existing FOIA laws, and urge them to always consider open government to be a good thing. Remember, nothing absolutely has to be discussed in closed session. That is a choice your elected officials make.

3 comments:

  1. What a great post!! We were just discussing this, Megan Kelly of Fox News filed a FOIA to get info about Hillary Clinton...and you know...our gvt. is so corrupt. Just a sad shape of affairs. I think these elected people just think they are above the law...just saying. ANYWAYS---GREAT POST!!! Blessings

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  2. A little late on this, as I' am once again playing catch-up, but a story out this week on our governor receiving huge amounts of "dark money" is god reason why full disclosure is a good thing -- and yet another reason NOT to want our governor as president of this country.

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  3. There was a story out this week about how much "dark money" our weasely governor has received, and it made me angry -- not just with how he keeps getting away with garbage like this, but with some of the people who have funneled mass amounts of money to him and his ilk "anonymously." Just another reason open records are a GOOD thing.

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