Democracy only works out in the open
The second full week of March is always a busy one around Montana as the snow melts and the bears and residents come out of hibernation.
The week of March 11 culminates with a Saturday St. Patrick’s Day with parades and other celebrations. Starting in the middle of the week is the giant Western Art Week shows, sales and parties in Great Falls, and in Missoula the annual Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival shakes things up on Thursday and Friday.
In spite of all of that, there’s no reason to think politics will take a back seat nationally — every day brings new revelations: breaking news, indictments and tweets.
Lost in the hubbub of that active time — also nationwide — is an event that deserves the attention, or at least the appreciation, of all engaged citizens: Sunshine Week.
Starting Sunday the 11th, news outlets nationwide will seek to call attention to the simple notion that democracy works only when it works out in the open — in the sunshine.
The term that has come into use in recent years to describe the concept locally and nationally is “transparency,” which presumably means that there is no veil of secrecy over the activities of government.
But “transparency” is too abstract a concept to do justice to a simple idea: In a democracy where citizens participate in decision-making, those citizens must be armed with information — facts, not “fake news” or pundits’ opinions.
Think about it. Only when people know about the operations of their government can they make intelligent, informed decisions to guide their government’s actions. A government that operates in the dark — for whatever reason — is not a truly democratic government.
And this is just as true for the local hospital board as it is for Congress; for the mayor as for the president.
I like to say 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 of the telescope, government in all of its many subdivisions from local through the state and federal, seems to have little effect on day-to-day life. Meals are eaten; critters and children are fed; televisions are watched; movies are streamed; and computers are obsessed over. Neighbors visit each other, and the old folks are taken to church on Sunday mornings.
From the other end of that scope, however, it’s not so simple. The meals are safe because of regulations; the cattle are subject to a variety of rules; domestic critters probably came from the county pound; and most of 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 gotten so complicated and the governments so large that no individual could possibly 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 local board meeting to discuss a land-use change next door; a district court trial of the neighbor accused of manslaughter after an awful wreck; 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 … well, responsible.
Sunshine Week was hatched 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 17th year Sunshine Week has been a nationwide observance.
Montana has been blessed for almost half a century 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 the officials took was illegal; maybe a document was embarrassing; or maybe a particular vote was simply unpopular.
This is not rocket science. Democracy suffers when government activities or documents are kept out of the public eye.
That’s why news organizations — print, broadcast and online — take the 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 windows open to sunshine 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.)