Sunshine Week fights darkness in government
Sunshine Week is more than a catchy title.
It’s a bold and noble endeavor to push for more openness from government. And that can come in several forms — through unfettered access to public meetings and to public documents.
The weeklong effort is coordinated by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. But Sunshine Week goes far beyond recognizing journalists. It’s also a profound acknowledgment of the public’s right to know.
New York has two bedrock provisions on the books that rightly embolden the public in these regards: the state Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law. But both laws could be made stronger — much stronger.
For too long, the state has failed to attach meaningful penalties when government officials either violate the open meetings law or don’t hand over documents in a timely manner. Sure, there are times when the government doesn’t have to be so forthcoming with information. But those instances are supposed to be few and far between. They include when the release of information might endanger someone’s life or impede legal negotiations.
Despite what you might hear sometimes, public boards can’t simply go into closed session to discuss “personnel issues” or “litigation”; the given reasons are supposed to be more specific than that, and they should be articulated during the public part of meetings.
Absent the rightful use of the exceptions, public officials should be slapped with stiff penalties, even removal of office, for failing to act in an open manner. What’s more, courts should be given greater latitude to nullify board decisions that are reached improperly.
Government agencies also are supposed to make meeting materials available prior to or at meetings and post them online when possible. This encourages thoughtful participation by the public and allows those attending meetings to more fully understand what is being discussed and perhaps ultimately voted upon.
When it comes to the righteous push for a more open government, the public should keep four words in mind: “the presumption of access.” That is, the public must insist the onus be placed on government to argue why documents or meetings should be closed, not on citizens to advocate why they should be open.
That distinction must be drilled into the head of every public official. And there is no better time than Sunshine Week to repeat the message.
This editorial by the editorial board of the Poughkeepsie Journal is reprinted by permission as part of Sunshine Week.