Let the sun shine in

Posted: Mar 18, 2007 12:00 AM
Let the sun shine in

Spring is springing, so these days we’re all a little more attuned to just how wonderful sunshine is. How much we need it . . . and how much we miss it when it’s not there.

It’s a rather good time, then, for Sunshine Week.

Which you just missed. Oops. Sorry. It was this past week.

The event is still worth noting, however. Also worth noting is the fact that this Sunshine Week soiree had nothing whatsoever to do with the sun, or CO2, or global warming. This is all about our government’s sunny disposition and its openness to us. About whether citizens can obtain from their putative servants the information necessary to play the part of fully engaged citizens.

To hold their government accountable.

Sunshine Week was spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors as “a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”

But last week, there was a lot more sunshine coming from the sky than from government offices. As part of the week’s festivities, The Sunshine Week 2007 National Information Audit was released. It showed a disappointing lack of regard in government for following the law when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act or open records requests.

Run by volunteers mostly from news organizations, the study found that more “than a third of public officials audited refused to provide access to their local Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan — which is mandated by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 as a public document. Another 20 percent provided only partial reports.”

That’s a majority of our government offices that broke the law by refusing to provide the public (that is, us, in case you forgot) with what are specifically public documents.

Really, how hard can it be?

Well, this latest nationwide audit is not a lone voice in the wilderness crying that public records are not so public. There are plenty of others.

In Illinois last October, the Better Government Association conducted a study to see how responsive government bodies were in complying with Freedom of Information Act requests from “ordinary citizens.” Not very. Nearly two-thirds, 62 percent, failed to comply with the law.

“The results are appalling,” says Jay Stewart, the group’s executive director. “When the overwhelming majority does not comply with the law and produce records that are clearly available under FOIA, something is seriously wrong.”

Drew Johnson, president and crusader-in-chief of the Tennessee Center for Public Policy, is certainly more high profile than your average citizen. You might recall that his group calculated and publicized Al Gore’s impressive energy usage.

But Johnson and TCPR aren’t “legitimate” enough to get straight answers — or for that matter any answers — from the Department of Revenue. Back at the beginning of the year, Johnson asked for information concerning the state’s somewhat bizarre Unauthorized Substance Tax. He has been completely stonewalled.

Nashville’s City Paper found some interesting emails behind the state’s denial of public information to these designated non-persons.

Director of Communications Emily Richard emailed: “Heads up: Several in the department are receiving calls from this group, re: the unauthorized substances tax. Please let your staff know this is not a legitimate group and therefore, we’re not responding to them. Let me know if anyone in your group is contacted by them. (By the way, this is Drew Johnson’s org.) Thanks.”

While Department of Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr was telling the City Paper that TCPR didn’t “follow proper channels,” the department’s public information officer sent this email message to other revenue staffers: “The Tennessee Center for Policy Research has called several people in the department, including me, re: unauthorized substances tax. As you know, this is Drew Johnson’s group. We are not responding to the calls.”

This past year, the Citizens in Charge Foundation, a group I work with, launched the Government Transparency and Accountability Project, which is using state Freedom of Information laws to research the degree to which government employees use taxpayer-financed resources (often illegally) to campaign for or against ballot measures, and the nature of such activity.

Local participants found illegal and unethical campaign activity being conducted in government buildings by government employees on the taxpayer’s time and using taxpayer resources. Often there was a seemingly willful ignorance of the law. And we discovered that tax-funded lobbying groups, like the Municipal League, bombarded government employees with emails that treated them as campaign workers on various ballot measures.

But most of all, we saw, as others have, that government agencies do not comply with the law. And their non-compliance was often with attitude.

“Even more disturbing than the results alone was the level of resistance and outright hostility that greeted the ordinary citizen asking to see public records,” says Leslie Graves, national director of the Government Transparency and Accountability Project.

We must instill into government an ethic of transparency. Openness. Sunshine. It’s already the law. And it’s time for government to follow it. During Sunshine Week and every other week.

Of course, that means it’s time for citizens to rise up, get knowledgeable, get involved, and make government workers tell us just what they’re up to.

We need to know. We have a right to know. Without such rights, and without such information, we don’t have a government of, by, or for the people. We merely have a government left to its own devices, too often sticking it to the people.

Wrong preposition. Of, by, and for are better. And so is in, as in “let the sun shine in.”