Friday, July 27, 2012

A little more sunshine, please


Over the past several years, the Post Register or its affiliate newspapers have been in court four times asking judges to require local government agencies to release information we believed was public.

The most recent instance was the Jefferson Star’s efforts to get phone records from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. Those records and additional reporting by the Star’s staff indicate that the sheriff’s wife has used a cell phone paid for by the county for years. (The Jefferson Star is owned by the Post Register’s parent company.)
          
We’ve also tussled in court with the Idaho State Police, the Bingham County prosecutor’s office and the Idaho Falls Police Department. Outside of court we’ve had to push hard to get information or address other right-to-know issues with another handful of government agencies. Too many people in government want to keep too much information secret.
          
The good news is that the courts have generally ruled in our favor. The bad news is that we shouldn’t have to go to court in the first place.
         
Idaho is fortunate to have in Lawrence Wasden a state attorney general who is passionate about openness. He’s conducted dozens of meetings around the state educating government officials on the state’s sunshine laws – those governing meetings and records. His work has had a significant influence throughout the state.
          
And yet, journalists too often find themselves digging for information and occasionally resorting to legal action. Too many government officials take umbrage when we ask for the simplest information that clearly falls within the requirements of the law. We have to ask ourselves, if it’s this hard when we know information exists, how much information is hidden so well that we don’t even know to ask about it?
          
Most public officials are good people doing difficult work. It’s too easy to lump them together as cogs of “The Government” and, therefore, automatically open to suspicion or even distrust. That’s not fair. Good public officials shouldn’t be smeared with the same brush used to paint the handful that fails us.
          
Even well-meaning public officials, however, are too often reluctant to simply hand over information when it’s requested or to make the effort to really learn Idaho’s meeting and records requirements. Too many attorneys for public agencies seem more interested in finding ways to circumvent the laws instead of insisting that both the letter and spirit of sunshine laws are followed.
          
In his manual on the state’s Open Meeting Law, Wasden wrote: “Open and honest government is fundamental to a free society. The Open Meeting Law codifies a simple, but fundamental, Idaho value: The public’s business ought to be done in public.”
          
Is that really so hard to understand?