Sunshine Week is coming up. But it’s not about your planned spring trip to Arizona or Florida.
Sunshine Week, March 15-21, is a national initiative to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
Good government results when the people’s business takes place in the open….when the sun shines in. When records and meetings are hidden, bad things happen. The Washington Post emphasizes this danger with its slogan – Democracy Dies in Darkness.
Too often, the job of shining light on government operations falls to journalists, but all citizens share the right of access to public records and government meetings. Journalists enjoy no special privilege.
The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state’s public records law. It was later expanded to cover an entire week when hundreds of media organizations, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others engage public discussion on the importance of open government. Sunshine Week is sponsored by the News Leaders Association and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press with support from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Gridiron Club and Foundation.
In Minnesota, two laws govern what government actions take place in the sunshine – the Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law.
In 1974, Minnesota became the first state to enact a data privacy statute. The statute seeks to balance the public policy interests inherent in government transparency with the privacy interests of individual data subjects. All government data is presumptively public, unless exempted from disclosure under a specific provision of the act or under another state or federal statute. Despite the general presumption of public access, Minnesota has created an extensive data classification system in which the legislature has made many detailed policy decisions on what data is publicly accessible, when and to what extent. This legislative session, for example, there’s an effort to keep private the names of people who win the state lottery.
The Minnesota Open Meeting Law, enacted in 1957, protects the public’s right to be informed and to prohibit actions from being taken at a secret meeting. The law applies to any state agency, board, commission or department when required or permitted by law to transact public business in a meeting; the governing body of a school district however organized, unorganized territory, county, statutory or home rule city, town, or other public body; any committee, subcommittee, board, department, or commission of a public body; or the governing body or commission of a statewide public pension plan or local public pension plan.
Sadly, many citizens are not aware of the rights available to them. Thanks to technology, access to government records and actions is easier than ever. In many cases, you don’t have to travel to city hall or the courthouse to read public documents and many public meetings are streamed online or broadcast on local cable systems.
When there’s a controversial issue or a dramatic criminal trial, meeting rooms and courtrooms fill up. But day after day, officials are conducting the public’s business, often with no citizens present.
During Sunshine Week, shine a little light of your own. Attend a city council or school board meeting, sign on to a government website and check out meeting agendas or documents or go to a courthouse and watch a hearing or a trial.
You may be surprised what you find in the sunshine.