The principal architect of Amer- ica’s Declaration of Independence once said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” Two and one-half centuries later, Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor remains as apt as ever.
Today — as Ohio and other states prepare to mark Sunshine Week from Sunday through March 16 — is a fitting time to take stock of how the free flow of information remains such a critical cog to the public’s right to know in a free and unfettered democracy.
Launched in 2005, Sunshine Week has grown into an annual initiative designed to promote open government and to combat excessive government secrecy. Ohio’s Sunshine Law comprises two facets: open meetings law and public records law. Both complement the federal Freedom of Information Act . Collectively, these statutes serve as powerful protections for the public and the press against those who’d prefer keeping the operations of government — be they good, bad or indifferent — in the dark.
As a newspaper, we take special interest in living up to the responsibility of spreading important information to the public — even on those occasions when that information becomes difficult to obtain due to ignorance of the law or, worse yet, due to deliberate ploys to withhold public records from public view.
Open records, after all, often pave the way toward larger stories that directly affect us and that sometimes violate the public interest. Locally, public records have been used recently to uncover the long and winding trail of massive and illegal waste dumping into the Mahoning River. Statewide, the news media used public records last week to detail the questionable and sometimes seedy backgrounds of many Internet cafe owners in Ohio. Nationally, open records have exposed corruption at all levels of government, uncovered environmental health dangers of the highest magnitude and revealed potentially deadly dangers of many drugs and medical products.
Clearly, the returns for the public good make the investments in keeping government wide open well worth the sometimes daunting challenges.
The Vindicator remains steadfastly committed to openness in the public arena. We have challenged those who have sought to circumvent the letter of the state’s open meetings law to ensure the public’s business is not conducted behind closed doors. We have not backed down on attempts to secure sensitive public documents that sometimes contain potentially damning findings. We continue to urge Ohio legislators to toughen the state’s open-records laws at a time when the laundry list of record exceptions has reached 29.
Independently, we also maintain an award-winning repository of public documents serving the Mahoning Valley — including community budgets, school district data and stories that invite public involvement — for easy access to the public. They’re available 24/7 on our website Vindy.com in the link titled Government Watch.
But Sunshine Week is not a week reserved only for media engagement. It also is a week for all segments of society to recognize the importance of the principles of government transparency and openness. To that end, Sunshine Week organizers urge civic groups to organize local forums, sponsor essay contests or press elected officials to pass proclamations on the importance of open access. Teachers can use Sunshine Week to teach students about how government transparency improves American lives and makes American communities stronger. Elected officials can pass resolutions supporting openness, introduce legislation improving public access or encourage training of government employees to ensure compliance with existing laws mandating open records and meetings.
Open meetings and open records help keep public officials honest, make government more efficient and provide a check against abuse of power. Such colossal benefits should encourage Ohioans to invest a little time next week in recognizing how the free flow of information enriches our communities, our state and our nation.