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Sunshine week calls attention to openness in government

The week of March 13 is a busy one, including St. Patrick’s Day parades and shenanigans (especially in Butte) and the Western Art Week shows, sales and parties in Great Falls. 

The nationally televised backdrop to those events will be the year’s biggest round yet of winner-take-all presidential primaries on March 15 with hundreds of convention delegates up for grabs. The same day kicks off the first, exciting rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament — March Madness.

Flying under the radar that same week is an event that deserves much but gets little attention: Sunshine Week.

Starting that Sunday, news outlets nationwide aim to call attention to the simple notion that our democratic republic works only when it works in the sunshine. And by “sunshine,” we don’t mean outdoors; we mean in public view, where everyone is able to see it.

Think about it. Only when citizens know about and observe the operations of their government can it be said to be a true democracy. If such a government operates in the dark — whether for its own selfish reasons or because of public apathy — its status as a representative democracy dies.

That truth applies just as surely for the local school board as for Congress; for the mayor as for the president.

It’s true that the relevance of government to the average U.S. citizen living in rural Montana depends on which end of the telescope that citizen is looking through. 

From one end, government with all of its local, county, district, state and federal manifestations, would seem to have little effect on day-to-day life. Food is eaten; cattle, dogs and kids are fed; books are read and televisions are watched. Neighbors come by on Friday nights and grandma is taken to church on Sunday mornings.

From the other end, however, it’s not so simple. Food is safe because of regulations; the cattle are subject to a variety of rules; the dogs came from the county pound, and the kids attend public, government-operated schools. Taxes are paid to provide police and fire protection, schools, roads, sewers and many parts of health care. Grandma lives on the Social Security she and Pop earned over their long lives.

In fact, through that end of the telescope the world has grown far too complicated and the governments far too large for any individual to track them adequately and still live a “normal” life.

That’s where the news outlets that are sounding the horn for Sunshine Week enter the picture. 

Their job — their very existence — depends on serving as the eyes and ears of the public in the deliberations of government. They serve some other functions along the way — education and entertainment among them — but the central purpose of news coverage is that of watchdog, informing the public of what the government is doing.

That means a city council meeting to discuss a land-use change next door; a district court trial of the neighbor accused of manslaughter after that awful wreck two months ago; a hearing in Helena to discuss a major overhaul of the state’s property tax system; and a committee meeting in Washington, D.C., on a proposed increase in public land grazing fees.

All of those things are important, but few individual citizens would have time to observe more than one of them. That’s why news organizations try to report on them. Citizens may not be able to participate in every decision, but if they’re made aware through news coverage, they can at least hold the responsible government officials responsible.

Sunshine Week was born in Florida in 2002 to call attention to the concept of openness in government and to highlight obstacles often put up by governments to keep the public out of their deliberations or records.

This is the 11th year Sunshine Week has been a nationwide observance. 

Montana has been blessed for more than 40 years with a state Constitution that provides a legal framework that in effect defaults to the concept of openness at all levels of government.

Even so, there remain officials at all levels — county commissioners and presidents alike — who have a natural desire to shield at least some of their activities or documents from public view. 

Maybe an action was illegal; maybe a document was embarrassing; or maybe a particular vote was simply unpopular.

It’s not complicated. Democracy is not served when government activities or documents are kept out of the public eye.

That’s why news organizations — print, broadcast and online — take the upcoming occasion to promote Sunshine Week. News reporters have no rights beyond those of the public, but they often do serve as the public’s eyes and ears. 

And that’s why news organizations hope the public will join them in keeping the light shining on government at all levels.

(Gary Moseman is retired managing editor of the Great Falls Tribune and a member of the Montana FOI Hotline’s board of directors. He resides in Lincoln.)

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