Let there be light

This is Sunshine Week. It’s not a weather forecast, but a week in which the importance of open public meetings and open public records is stressed by journalists of all stripes, and by anyone who cares about the poetic words from the Constitution printed above.
It usually is an inside-the-First-Amendment exercise. But it shouldn’t be, because keeping public meetings and public records public is not just for The Associated Press, The New York Times, or even The Courier.
It’s for you. It’s for your information.
It’s so you can walk into your county auditor’s office and, offering no more than “Good morning,” find out who bought the house across the street or the farm next to yours, and for how much.
It’s so you can ask your sheriff, “Who is in our jail today?”
It’s so your county commissioners, or City Council, or township trustees, don’t secretly deliberate and vote over late-night beers or, these days, via email.
It’s so you can find out your school superintendent’s salary, just because you’re nosey, or if the rumor of a serious crime is true, or if there was a burglary around the corner.
It’s so you can find out what they do when they do it. It’s so the people’s business can be the people’s business, your business.
Unfortunately, sometimes our elected and appointed representatives get carried away. Fortunately, it’s usually not malicious.
They go behind closed doors just because a business person asks them to, or someone may be embarrassed. Or they don’t know what they can and cannot do. Or, perhaps worst of all, they forget who they work for.
It happens there and it happens here.
Last Wednesday, near Cincinnati, a common pleas court judge ruled that Clearcreek Township officials violated the law by discussing such items as a lawn care contract and a zoning nuisance policy in private and in advance of a public meeting.
Just the day before, the Hancock County commissioners went into closed session to discuss “economic development matters.” What went on? We may never know. A new, untested state law allowed them to use that excuse, although it wasn’t detailed enough.
And, last year, remember how it took months and months just to find out why the director of the Hancock Regional Planning Commission was fired?
That’s why we’re offering a proclamation for our public bodies of all kinds to consider and to approve right away. Yes, it’s boilerplate language. But it is a place to start and it is probably the most important form any public official can fill out during their time in public office.
And they should do so in public.
Why not?
OPEN GOVERNMENT PROCLAMATION
WHEREAS, James Madison, the father of our federal Constitution, wrote that “consent of the governed” requires that the people be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” and
WHEREAS, every citizen in our participatory democracy has an inherent right to access to government meetings and public records; and
WHEREAS, an open and accessible government is vital to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in their government and in the government’s ability to effectively serve its citizens; and
WHEREAS, the protection of every person’s right of access to public records and government meetings is a high priority of (your governmental unit), and
WHEREAS, the (your governmental unit) is committed to openness and transparency in all aspects of its operations and seeks to set a standard in this regard;
NOW, THEREFORE, the (your governmental unit) commits during this Sunshine Week, commemorating the anniversary of James Madison’s birth, and throughout the year, to work diligently to enhance the public’s access to government records and information, to increase information provided electronically and online, and to ensure that all meetings of deliberative bodies under its jurisdiction, and their committees, are fully noticed and open to the public.
TOWARD THAT END, (your governmental unit) directs that:
IT SHALL consider recommendations within 90 days, based on public input, for strengthening transparency in our government. The recommendations should focus on actions that can be accomplished within one year of the date of this memorandum.
AND, all of its meetings, its committees and subcommittees, and of any board or agency created by it be properly noticed and open to the public.
AND, all agencies, departments and units of (your governmental unit) accept, as a minimum, information requests submitted by telephone, U.S. mail or its equivalent, over the counter, and online.
AND, a schedule of charges for copies of such records be established that does not exceed actual cost.

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