Let the light shine on our government

Independent Record, March 12, 2017

Today is a day to celebrate sunshine, and we’re not talking about daylight saving time.

March 12-18 is recognized as Sunshine Week, a national initiative intended to celebrate open government and freedom of information and bring attention to anything that threatens that.

With limited exceptions, the United States and state of Montana both grant people the ability to participate in meetings held by and inspect documents in the possession of their governing bodies. We enjoy some of the strongest government transparency laws in the world, which is part of the reason our representative democracy has remained strong for hundreds of years while others around the globe have crumbled.

But there is still much work to be done at the national, state and even local level. And that might not happen until freedom-loving Americans rise up and demand it.

At the national level, an Associated Press analysis found the Obama administration set a new record in 2014 for censoring government files or denying access to them under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. And while it’s too early to tell whether the Trump administration will continue Obama’s legacy of secrecy, the president’s transparency record so far doesn’t give us much hope.

At the state level, we have seen many of the problems with Montana’s sunshine laws firsthand in our role as information gatherers and disseminators. Though the state Constitution gives citizens the right to inspect “public writings” of the state, it doesn’t give government officials much of an incentive to provide them.

As we’ve said many times, Montana law doesn’t specify how quickly those “public writings” must be produced, which allows government officials to intentionally drag their feet. Nor does the state impose any criminal penalties for those who fail to comply, allowing officials to break the law without much fear of repercussions.

Montana law also allows officials to arbitrarily decide whether public documents contain too much private information for the public to see, and it gives them the ability to hide public records in private email accounts where nobody can find them.

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As a result of these issues, you don’t always get to see how your elected representatives are representing you.

We want to dispel the misconception that sunshine laws exist just for the news media, because they don’t. Though we use them routinely in the course of our work, these laws give everyone the right to observe government deliberations and inspect government documents whether they are making headlines or not.

The bottom line is government officials do not own the information they hold. That belongs to the public, and we all have a duty to ensure they aren’t withholding information from the people who pay their salaries