Op-Ed: Stand in the Sunshine

Today kicks off “Sunshine Week,” an annual national initiative to promote a dialogue on the importance of guaranteeing the right all citizens to demand accountability from their government, at all levels.

Boiled down to the basics, “Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why,” according to sunshineweek.org.

Here in Florida we have some of the strongest public records and open meeting laws in the nation. Those provisions are under constant assault in the Legislature, where many special interests — and many legislators — would prefer that government be able to operate more freely behind closed doors.

Sunshine Week is primarily sponsored by the American Society of News Editors, and the organizers say its main participants are “news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.”

But it is crucial to note that the main point of open government is not to benefit the media, but to benefit the public.

More importantly, these laws give members of the public every right enjoyed by the media to attend meetings, see records and demand answers from their elected and appointed officials.
But like any right, it comes with responsibilities.

Not everyone can crowd into a meeting. And government would grind to a halt if everyone decided to head to the closest city hall, county courthouse or state office building to demand copies of reams of documents about all sorts of governmental programs, or demand that officials submit to constant interviews.

For most people, the media perform the watchdog function and disseminate information to a wide audience.

But far more than most people realize, the media also depend upon engaged citizens to bring to light concerns, abuses and other information about what government is doing.

Many an award-winning newspaper investigation has had its roots in information brought to that newspaper by citizens who did the initial digging, or who pointed reporters in the right direction.

So it is critically important to remember that government in the sunshine is not some arcane media interest that has nothing to do with the man and woman on the street. The people stand at its heart, and it empowers them to ensure that they remain the masters of their government, not its servants.