Despite the cold and snowy conditions outside today, Ohio and the entire U.S. are basking under particularly pleasant-sounding conditions all week. Advocates of First Amendment freedoms and open access to public information are celebrating Sunshine Week through Saturday.
Truth to tell, however, here’s the brightest observation we can muster up to describe current conditions on the open-government horizon: partly sunny.
Though some illuminating progress has been achieved in recent years toward freer and more unfettered access to public information, clouds still darken the purest and noblest intent of maximum transparency in some public-sector operations.
From the upper echelons of the administration of President Donald Trump to some of the smallest halls of township government in Ohio, secrecy too often continues to shroud transparency and to stifle robust democracy.
ABOUT SUNSHINE WEEK
The Sunshine Week observance owes its roots to James Madison, known as the Father of the U.S. Constitution and a primary architect of its Bill of Rights. The week coincides annually with his birthday, which is Thursday. The observance has been spearheaded by news organizations to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive secrecy.
On the sunny side in Ohio, some agencies of state government have been making concerted efforts to maximize open access and to reprimand those entities that fall short. Just this week, for example, State Auditor Dave Yost released results of public records-related audits for 2016.
Auditors issued 414 public-records citations against 357 public entities last year. Yost’s “Sunshine Audit” brings reason for both optimism and gloom.
The number of cited violations represents about a 16 percent increase over 2015 levels. But most of the citations deal with technical issues involving training in public-records law and proper policy formation.
Overall, Ohio’s open-meetings and open-records laws rank with the best nationwide. As Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, wrote this month, “For all our complaining, Ohio actually has a good open-records law in many respects. The presumption of openness is strong. The new public-records appeals process can clean up a lot of disputes and raise awareness of governmental bodies.”
Another case in point of the strengthening transparency in public spending is found in state Treasurer Josh Mandel’s online checkbook initiative, which continues to grow in size and impact. The program now boasts more than 500 public entities, including many in the Mahoning Valley, that have jumped online to show taxpayers exactly how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent on public services and public officials’ salaries.
Yet even that initiative is not without its shortcomings. As we’ve argued often on this page, clear and transparent online information on the hodgepodge of public pension systems in the state remains incomplete and far from transparent.
CLOUDS OVER FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
In our federal government, sadly secrecy has become a watchword of the new Trump administration. From the chief executive’s ongoing refusal to release his tax returns to blockage of certain media outlets to a press event to the refusal to provide the public with evidence of charges of wiretapping of Trump Tower, the clouds appear to be darkening above 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The new Trump White House, however, has no lock on blocking the free flow of public information. The Associated Press on Tuesday reported that the administration of Barack Obama spent a record $36.2 million in public money on legal costs to defend its refusal to turn over public records to the public and media.
This mixed bag of results demonstrates that much more due diligence remains necessary. State officials should continue records audits and training of public officials on abiding by the letter and the spirit of Ohio’s relatively stringent statutes to block government secrecy. For our part, The Vindicator will continue to fight aggressively for all records and data that serve the public’s legitimate right to know.
With continued perseverance by all involved, we trust that future observances of Sunshine Week will be even less clouded by secrecy and potential chicanery.