If you’re an editor who believes “success breeds success,” then Sunshine Week, March 11-17, is a perfect time to highlight efforts by private citizens to keep state and local government open to the public. Citizens like Alan Cowles of Lawrence, Kansas, and Debbie Miller of Independence, Kansas, whose advocacy has made government more accountable.
Cowles, a physician, was trying to track a local issue when he became frustrated by vague justifications a public board used to meet in executive session, out of the public eye. To see whether use of such vague rationale was common, Cowles examined the minutes of city and county boards in the state’s 10 largest cities. He documented 200 hours of meetings conducted behind closed doors without meaningful explanation as to why and took his findings to a state legislator who co-sponsored a bill last year to change the state’s open meeting law. The law passed.
Now, instead of just saying they’re going to discuss a “personnel matter,” “property acquisition,” “legal matter” or other broad topic, public boards in Kansas are required to state more specifically the subjects they plan to discuss before meeting behind closed doors.
Cowles received an annual Open and Accessible Government Award from the local League of Women Voters for “his community leadership in promoting transparent, open government.”
Kansas resident Debbie Miller also challenged secrecy when she filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) after officials in her town of Independence refused to provide her with a blank copy of the form they used to evaluate the city manager. City officials said the form was related to a “personnel matter” and created specifically to evaluate their city manager so they didn’t have to make it public. Miller filed a complaint with the Kansas attorney general who ruled in her favor. It turned out the form was actually taken from the Internet. The city was ordered to release the document, provide training in open records law to city officials and pay a $250 fine.
For her efforts, Miller was recognized by the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, which called her “an inspiration to members of the public everywhere who are concerned about transparency in government.”
Writing about citizens like Cowles and Miller is one of many opportunities news organizations can use to capitalize on Sunshine Week. It’s also good time to hold a forum on the importance of government access; post columns, cartoons and editorials on the topic; run how-tos that help citizens access information; and cover events by civic groups, universities and government agencies that use this national initiative each year to draw attention to the importance of government openness and accountability.
As we announced in the ASNE newsletter last week, ASNE and its partners will make available a special reporting project and other content for use that week.
Sunshine Week was created in 2005 to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and a major architect of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison and others championed the First Amendment to prevent the kind of tyranny colonists faced from King George III who prevented newspapers critical of him from publishing during the American Revolution.
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Sunshine Week is a great time to remind citizens that their participation and engagement in civic life are perhaps the greatest ammunition we have against government secrecy. One way to do that is to show them everyday people in your communities who have taken up the cause.
Pam Fine is the Knight Chair for News, Leadership and Community at the University of Kansas.