Sunshine Week empowers people

It happens every time I walk into a voting booth.

At those times, when Im preparing to do my civic duty, I always wonder if Ive gotten enough information about the candidates. Do I know all I need to know to cast an informed vote? Am I missing important information about the activities and character of the people for whom Im voting?

As a journalist, having access to information about our government and our public officials is crucial not only at election time, but also as we go about our daily task of covering the activities of those officials. Every time we attend a meeting or interview an official, we should be asking if were getting the truth the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as they say when they swear in court witnesses.

As journalists, its central to our role our public trust that we seek that kind of whole truth. Were covering events as representatives of the public, and we have an obligation to cover those events fully and honestly, so that those who read our stories can get an accurate and complete picture of whats going on in our city, county, state or national government.

Its because of that burden, that we observe Sunshine Week each year. This week, March 16-22, is designated as a time to focus on open government and freedom of information issues.

Though the initiative is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, it is really a week that touches us all. One of the main points of the observance is to highlight the publics right to know what its government is doing. It seeks to empower the people to play an active role in their government, and to give them access to information that makes them more effective citizens.

The idea of Sunshine Week springs from the concept that open government is always better government. And decisions made in the open are more likely to be good ones for the people being affected by them.

We all have seen the abuses, when government officials think that no one is watching or that were too stupid to pick up on what theyre doing. Those are the times when officials make laws to feather their own nests or to serve as paybacks to political allies.

A survey released this week by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University showed that three-quarters of American adults view the federal government as secretive, and nearly 90 percent say it is important to know presidential and congressional candidates positions on open government.

In the past two years, however, that survey has shown that the percentage of Americans who believe that the federal government is very or somewhat secretive has grown from 62 percent to 74 percent.

Those are not encouraging indicators of how the public views our representatives stand on openness in government.

What is encouraging is a bill, introduced last week by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). Called the Open FOIA Act, it calls on Congress to explicitly and clearly state its intentions to create any new exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

In defense of the new bill, Leahy said: Sen. Cornyn and I have worked together for years to restore openness and transparency to a government that has become increasingly secretive. While some government information needs to be kept secret, we cannot allow the government to hide behind the veil of secrecy and curb the publics right to know, just to avoid accountability. Our new legislation will take steps to make clear those exemptions to FOIA, and this is a fitting start to Sunshine Week.

Here in Illinois, with a former governor in prison, a sitting governor with several members of his inner circle under investigation, its particularly important that we keep beating the drum of openness and accountability.

The representatives who operate ethically have nothing to fear; those who prefer to operate in the shadows will be the ones complaining about the sunshine.

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