There are two kinds of governments: those that are driven by the people, from the bottom up, and those that are run by rulers, from the top down.
There is an adage that knowledge is power. When it comes to representative government, knowledge of what government officials are doing protects the power of the people. Knowledge is what keeps dictators at bay. People have to be able to see what their representatives in government are doing or those representatives will begin operating in their own best interests.
Since 2005, this has been the time of year when the American Society of Newspaper Editors observes national Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information. It coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.
Sunshine Week is championed by newspaper editors, but it’s designed for everyone. Its focus is on open-meetings laws and public-records laws used every day by the press to shine a light on how government works – or doesn’t work. Everyone, not just the press, has a stake in open government, and everyone can play a role in protecting our heritage as an open and free society.
Meetings take place every day that have the potential to change the lives of people. Locally there are city councils, township trustees, school boards, county commissioners, boards of elections, boards of health, port authorities and others.
In Columbus, in addition to the General Assembly, there are dozens of state agencies charged with running our prisons, responding to disasters, protecting against environmental hazards and generally providing for the public health and safety.
The court system provides for justice in civil and criminal matters and holds judges, prosecutors and lawyers to ethical standards. The need for police departments and criminal courts to operate in the open was recognized by the Founders who knew something about the historical injustice of star chambers and coerced confessions.
While we are centuries removed from the Star Chamber, we don’t have to look far to find public officials who find it more convenient to operate behind closed doors.
ALWAYS FAVOR OPENNESS
Ohio’s Sunshine Law not only requires meetings to be open and records to be public, but it specifically calls for any gray areas to be interpreted in favor of openness. Nonetheless, some officials look for ways to circumvent the law and, unfortunately, some Ohio courts have issued rulings that mock the admonition to favor openness.
Examples of disdain for open government on both the local and national scenes are cause for concern.
Consider a Feb. 9 meeting of the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission called by Brian Benyo, then the commission’s president. The commission had an invitation-only meeting to discuss the future of the Youngstown City School District. The press and general public were barred from attending.
Benyo described those attending as “stakeholders,” and locked out those who didn’t meet his arbitrary definition. The danger is that the real stakeholders – students, parents, city residents – will only find out what’s been discussed by a chosen few after a plan has been set in stone.
Benyo and two other members of the commission have resigned. We hope the reconstituted board will acquaint itself with the concept of interpreting Ohio Sunshine Law in favor of openness.
Also last month, we witnessed a new twist on closing the courthouse door. It involved a case of obvious public interest, corruption charges filed against former Niles Mayor Ralph Infante.
A pretrial hearing before Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove was done over the telephone and closed to the public. The public has a more than passing interest in lawyerly arguments over what evidence is admissible and what isn’t when a longtime public official is facing charges of bribery, gambling, theft in office and records tampering.
Accommodating the schedules of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and defendants is not a bad thing – unless the accommodation involves turning what should be a public part of the proceedings into a private phone call.
In a day when “fake news” has become a rallying cry, the need for government transparency – and for public vigilance – has never been greater.
Anyone who wants to play a more active role in assuring transparency in government need only go to the website of Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine at ohioattorneygeneral.gov and type the word sunshine in the search box. A manual on the state’s Sunshine Law and other materials can be easily downloaded. There are videos on open meetings and public records, guidelines for public officials on how to follow the Sunshine Law and advice on how a citizen can respond to a violation of the law.
We honor Madison during Sunshine Week, March 11-17, but we preserve his legacy by demanding government accountability all 52 weeks of the year.