Sunshine Week's dark clouds
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Today wraps up Sunshine Week, where "open government is good government," as a slogan states at sunshineweek.org.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know, the website reports.
The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state's public records law, according to sunshineweek.org. FSNE estimates that some 300 exemptions to open government laws were defeated in the legislative sessions that followed its three Sunshine Sundays. The increased public and legislative awareness that resulted from the Sunshine Sunday reports and commentary were credited for the exemption defeats.
Several states followed Florida's lead, and in June 2003, ASNE hosted a Freedom of Information Summit in Washington where the seeds for Sunshine Week were planted.
The Sunshineweek.org site includes a link to "FOI In Action," which details how people in and out of the news business have used state and federal Freedom of Information laws to find out what's happening in their communities and to hold public officials accountable.
Recent examples they list include a report by a group called DNA info that determined through research that New York City had five school bus accidents a day, a revelation that led safety advocates to push for more safety features on the buses.
Another case involved the Lexington Herald-Leader using Kentucky's Open Records Act to discover that the chief executive of two state agencies that lend money to college students had spent more than $50,000 on out-of-state trips, often exceeding the daily per diem limits and treating guests to $100-plus a person meals.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch reporters filed public records requests to find out more about the environmental cleanup of a long-abandoned coke plant designed to make way for a new business park. The request generated 11,000 pages of records, which the reporters reviewed on site, rather than getting copies and likely prompting an environmental cleanup in the newsroom, sunshineweek.org reported. The records search showed the $6.7 million project estimate was much too low, which officials knew at the time; that there was no public bidding; and that the original polluters paid only a fraction of the cleanup cost.
These types of cases ring with relevance this week in both Shamokin and Pennsylvania. For the city, it is fighting an open records battle with Northumberland County Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy over what's spent on health care coverage for elected officials. The News-Item, which like the commissioners had its requests for that information rejected, will be watching the progress of Bridy's appeal to gauge our next step. As we reported this week with input from Pennsylvania's Freedom of Information Coalition, it seems rather apparent that this information should be part of the public record.
Of course, it's about much more than obtaining the information. It's about the details: Some city elected officials are full-time employees and, as such, are free to enroll in the health care plan offered to all employees. Others - such as city council members and the mayor - are not employees and receive only stipends as set by law, and knowing how much is spent for the city to afford them health care coverage is worthy of public discussion.
As for Pennsylvania, the criminal charges filed this week against eight people, including retired state Sen. Robert J. Mellow related to corruption at the Turnpike Commission, certainly speaks to need for government accountability, and reinforces the need for the Sunshine Week mantra mentioned in the first paragraph: "Open government is good government."
(Andy Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)