From the Editor: Transparency is a two-way street
Ryan Summerlin March 23, 2014
Obviously, transparency means much more than what is being conveyed on the pages of this edition, but we think our Sunshine Project is a good start, in the least, to get the conversation rolling.
It’s National Sunshine Week this week, and a lot of the hoopla associated with it surrounds how government can make its practices more open.
But as we gathered the information for our own Sunshine audit, it became clear that a large part of government transparency depends on its citizens.
I was surprised to learn from one clerk that in the 10-plus years she has worked for the town, she has only received two requests for minutes from citizens. Some people may not even know what government minutes are.
It’s no wonder certain districts or towns get out of practice with Sunshine ideals when few citizens are actually exercising their right to know.
And as journalist who has covered countless December budget hearings in this county, I am discouraged by the fact I am usually the only one in the room besides town staff and board members during these important public discussions. If there are citizens present at these meetings, there are usually only a few.
I understand “budget discussions” don’t have much sex appeal, but they are more interesting than what the average citizen might think. It’s then and there your government hashes out on what it will spend money that year. It’s exactly the time when citizens can hear from elected officials what they really value, what the “big picture” is in the community, and what is being prioritized. Budget season has more influence on the true direction of a town, county or special district than any other time. And thanks to the merits of a U.S. democracy, you as citizens have a right to listen in. But few do.
Towns and counties spend money on recording devices, hearing-impaired equipment, microphones, sound systems and camera equipment to make meetings more accessible to all. Yet only during highly publicized and controversial meetings — usually ones involving an issue with a liquor license in this county — do a wide range of citizens actually attend.
Clerks put countless hours into transcribing meeting minutes and cataloguing documents associated with town, district and county business. Yet from our Sunshine Citizen focus group, we learned that very few citizens actually know how to get a hold of these documents at their disposal.
It’s no wonder certain districts or towns get out of practice with Sunshine ideals when few citizens are actually exercising their right to know. It’s no wonder they attach unreasonable fees to “retrieve” documents when open-records requests are seemingly “out-of-the-ordinary” in their world, seemingly interfering with the “regular” work of a clerk, even though taxpayers are already paying that clerk — by the nature of the job — to make the information available.
A general lack of knowledge — or general apathy — among the public on government practices gives a greater purpose for newspapers, which are tasked with being government watchdogs, highlighting the important.
But the public’s apathy is not ideal for a healthy democracy, especially at a time when newsroom budgets are shrinking.
In order to have a healthy exchange of ideas between elected officials and citizens, citizens need to be armed with information to provide intelligent input. They also have the right to be informed to keep elected officials in check.
So we hope our little project not only exposes some of the successes and failures of government transparency in our communities, we also hope it motivates you, the citizenry, to get more involved.
Seeking knowledge by gaining access to records, by speaking with government staff to understand better, and by attending meetings to hear firsthand the direction of government are simple ways to be informed and have valid input.
Meanwhile, the newspaper will continue to do what it can to put government information in perspective — but we can always use a little watchdog help from our friends.