by Curt Kovener
Today we are in the middle of Sunshine Week 2019.
No, dear reader, this is not a week when they sun must shine and warm us up a bit…though it would be welcome. Sunshine Week, which highlights the importance of open government, was established in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors.
The timing of this week-long observance coincides with two related celebrations: the birthday of our fourth president and “father of the Constitution,” James Madison on March 16; and National Freedom of Information Day, which is set for the same day.
In simple terms, freedom of information is your right to know what your government is doing— how it spends your tax dollars, how it creates and implements policy, how it makes decisions that affect you.
Over the past several weeks we have published the annual reports of cities & towns, townships and counties. Those reports tell you the receipts (tax revenue), spending on government services, and the financial health of those governmental entities. This week, we begin publishing Annual Performance Reports for the area school systems.
Let’s say, for example, you want a copy of the budget for Crothersville, Austin or Scottsburg (or any other governmental entity). You have the right to walk into City Hall and ask for it.
And the governmental entity has to give it to you, or it must explain why it can’t.
If you request a public record in person, the governmental entity has 24 hours to respond to your request. If you make the request by mail, it has seven days.
In considering your request, the government office can’t ask why you want the information. It can’t even legally ask who you are.
If all you want to do is examine the document, you have the right to do that right there in the office. If you want a copy, the office does have the option of charging you a reasonable fee.
The fight for open government isn’t about liberals and conservatives. Freedom of information advocates come from the right and the left.
And they keep fighting the good fight year in and year out because they truly believe in a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
James Madison was a champion of the elimination of secrecy in government, which as you may have noticed lately is an issue that’s more important to highlight than ever.
Journalism and the very concept of truth have been under attack, so it’s important not to lose sight of primacy of the First Amendment in our society. When true stories public officials don’t like are called “fake news,” and when the holder of the nation’s highest office calls the free press “the enemy of the American people,” you know it’s time to stand up for these ideals.