Sunshine Week is a annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community. It is celebrated March 12-18, 2017 this year. Any newspapers are welcome to publish this guest column commissioned by MNA and written by John Bodette. Click here for a full toolkit of additional resources including editorial cartoons.
By JOHN BODETTE
Welcome to Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote openness in government.
When we are experiencing “fake news,” “alternative facts,” frequent falsehoods and efforts to label journalists as “enemies of the people,” there is no better time to shine the light on government.
While I was executive editor of the St. Cloud Times, we did several in-depth reports on how citizens could access public information. The Times did reporting projects to request public information from city and county governments, including law enforcement, to make sure information that is required to be public was readily made available.
But rather than directing this column to the journalists who work hard to serve their communities, I want to ask all citizens to take part in Sunshine Week.
Most people don’t realize the wealth of information that is not only available to the public, but required by law to be provided.
Do you want a copy of your school superintendent’s employment contract? Ask for it. It is public.
Want to know who is in your county jail? You should be able to access the information online or request a list from local law enforcement.
Want a copy of your city or county budgets? Ask for it. Those are public records.
My best advice has always been to assume, with a few exceptions, that anything having to do with government actions is public. Some personnel matters and most juvenile court records aren’t public. But so many other documents are open. For example: Expense records for government officials are public. Government contracts with private companies and individuals are public.
Another good source of information are the legal notices published in daily and weekly newspapers, also required by law in many cases.
Need help on answering questions on whether information is public?
The state Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division is where to turn.
IPAD’s primary mission is to offer help and consultation on the Data Practices Act, the Open Meeting Law and other information policy state laws. The agency answers questions from residents, governments and groups and businesses interested in public records. You can find them here: http://www.ipad.state.mn.us/index.html.
This is the time for all citizens to demand open access to government information. Transparency in government makes for stronger communities.
I think the Washington Post has hit the target by placing under its front page masthead the words “Democracy dies in the darkness.”
There is no better time to bring transparency to government at all levels than during Sunshine Week.
John Bodette recently retired as executive editor of the St. Cloud Times and Times Media.