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Keeping government work out in the sunshine

About three years before he became an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis D. Brandeis said in a 1913 article in Harper’s Weekly, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

While sunlight can’t immediately help us out of the national stranglehold the coronavirus has on us, by disinfecting in the public health sense, keeping elected officials from ducking into the shade is always a great idea.

That’s what Sunshine Week is all about. It’s about your right as a citizen to know what your government is doing.

Celebrated this year from March 15 to 21, Sunshine Week was created in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and is now coordinated in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It’s also enthusiastically backed by the Maryland Delaware D.C. Press Association, of which this newspaper is a long-standing member.

But it’s important to point out that “freedom of information isn’t just a press issue,” according to the ASNE. “It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power.”

And while journalists are concerned with that on a day-to-day basis, we have no special rights beyond those enjoyed by everyone else. Sure, we’re the ones speaking truth to power, and asking the questions you’d ask if you had the time and inclination. But government transparency is something from which we can all benefit. And during this “need to know” time of dealing with a global pandemic, it’s even more critical.

In Maryland, the Open Meetings Act assures that public business is conducted by our elected officials in an open and public setting. While there are reasonable exceptions for allowing closed-door discussions (like personnel matters, litigation and property acquisition), most actions a public body takes in Maryland must still be made in open session in accordance with the act.

And the open meetings law in St. Mary’s County is among the most citizen friendly in the entire nation. Its letter and its spirit, rightly, is the inclination for meetings to be easier to open than to close. In this truncated session of the General Assembly, a few tweaks were made to what could be discussed by the county commissioners in closed session: investment of public funds, other legal consultation and cybersecurity discussions. But a provision to allow certain subcommittees to meet privately did not advance. We are happy that part did not pass muster.

The federal Freedom of Information Act and Maryland’s Public Information Act grant open access to government documents — a wide variety of documents. Do you want to know how much a town administrator makes? File a Public Information Act request. Do you want to see what comments the state has received on transportation studies? File a Public Information Act request.

These laws are important to the public and the free press guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. You do not have to be a newspaper reporter to file an Open Meetings Act complaint or a Public Information Act request. That’s a right extended to all citizens.

In this day of “fake news” and attacks on the media by those in power, it is important for readers to understand that our only agenda is to bring the news about what is happening in their community.

For a community paper like The Enterprise, a good bit of our reporting comes from the meetings of public bodies. We send out a reporter, and he or she writes what was said on the public record. And we tell readers who said it, or we cite the publicly available documents that provided the information. It’s all about transparency and accountability.

When we file an Open Meetings Act complaint, it is not out of malice. It is because a public body erred in its conduct. An issue was discussed behind closed doors that by law should have been deliberated before the public. When we file a Public Information Act request, we are not digging for dirt. We are trying to answer questions about publicly funded government operations to provide clarity to taxpayers on how their money is being spent.

In celebrating Sunshine Week, we urge readers to get involved with their government. Sunshine laws guarantee access to how laws are passed and how tax dollars are spent.

We thank you for your continued support of The Enterprise so that we may continue sharing such information with the community.

It’s your government. It’s your right to know. Enjoy the sunshine.