Donna Frye: An Ode to Open Government – ‘Let the Sun Shine In’

by on March 26, 2015 · 0 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, History, Politics, San Diego

Open governmentBy Donna Frye

This past week, March 15 – 21, the annual celebration called Sunshine Week took place throughout the nation. It was started over 10 years ago by the American Society of News Editors, with its goal being to –

“enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.”

From news organizations large and small, the public learned about Sunshine Week and why open government matters. The Des Moines Register  ran a series of editorials, guest views and features on the importance of open government.  The Washington Post encouraged us to “think about how the federal government can be more open to the public” as they checked “on recent efforts to increase transparency.”And the Sioux Falls Business Journal noted in their headline that “every week should be Sunshine Week in S.D.”

I agree, but it’s too bad that headline was about South Dakota and not San Diego. For the most part, Sunshine Week in San Diego came and went, and almost no local newspapers or media took any notice. Their silence was deafening.

On a positive note, two local Sunshine Week events were held. One was an Open Government Boot Camp training session for the public organized by San Diegans for Open Government and Californians Aware that was covered by The Star News.  The other was the annual Sunshine Week Awards event sponsored by the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists, covered by the Times of San Diego. Other than that, if you had asked people in San Diego about Sunshine Week and what it meant, a whopping majority would have said it was all about the nice weather we were having.

So what is open government and why does it matter? Open government has numerous definitions, but at its core is the right for the public to know what their government is doing and why, to prevent government decisions from being made in secret and to have access to the information we need to hold our elected officials accountable.

Open government matters because what we don’t know can harm us. We have a right to make informed choices about the most basic things in our lives such as the food we eat and the water we drink. We are better off knowing the standards government uses to ensure our health and safety rather than having to guess about whether or not our food and water is safe to consume.

It matters because what we don’t know can cost us a boatload of money.For example, we have a right to know whether elected officials are spending our money wisely on things that will improve our lives, or using it to curry favor with folks who can spend unlimited amounts to get them re-elected.  Open government  informs our decisions about whether our local taxes would be better spent building a new stadium for the Chargers or fixing our aging infrastructure. Without knowing what it costs, it’s impossible to make a reasonable decision.

Open government matters because it improves our lives by giving us a voice. An informed public is better able to actively participate and change the things we don’t like, but that’s hard to do if we can’t get access. Government information belongs to us, not the elected officials, and it’s something worth protecting and  fighting for every day. Without it, we are simply wishing and hoping that what we think we know is accurate. It also makes us an easy target for those who know things that we don’t.

As Terry Francke, our general counsel at Californians Aware summarized, “People willing to take a stand and speak out are easily disabled and discredited if the facts and discussions that advance government and other powerful institutions are sealed away from their discovery.”

These are just a few reasons why open government matters and how it impacts our lives. With that in mind, maybe next year our San Diego media will actively participate in Sunshine Week so when we read the headlines about the sun shining in S.D., it’s not about South Dakota or our weather.

Donna Frye is the president of Californians Aware, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support and defend open government, an inquiring press and a citizenry free to exchange facts and opinions on public issues.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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