Open meetings and public records laws aren’t just about the press. These statutes are in place to help everyday people engage and affect the governmental bodies that make decisions and policies on their behalf. During Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide celebration of access to public information, it’s especially important to recognize that the people have the power.
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 12 to 18, 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.
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.
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.
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 or see what comments the state has received on transportation studies? File a Public Information Act request.
Anyone has the right to use these tools, but journalists use them often to fulfill their role as a watchdog for the public.
For instance, a special project this year done by members of MDDC took a look at the transparency (or lack of) among Maryland’s local school boards by examining public school system websites to assess how easy it is to get key information about public schools. The report said overall that the school systems generally do well sharing basic information on their websites, such as how to contact the superintendent or when the next school board meeting will be held, but finding information about teacher and administrator salaries, the amount spent per pupil and the amounts of contracts with outside vendors can be a challenge.
The press stands in for citizens, asking questions that matter to community members and connecting the dots on the information provided.
That has a real, tangible impact in our communities. In a study, researchers found “disruptions in local news coverage are soon followed by higher long-term borrowing costs for cities. Costs for bonds can rise as much as 11 basis points after the closure of a local newspaper — a finding that can’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions” (“The hidden costs of losing your city’s newspaper,” City-Lab, May 30, 2018). The investigative work of the local press is instrumental to an effective government.
These laws are important to the public and the free press guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In this day of “fake news” and continued 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 Southern Maryland News, 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 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.
This paper also publishes public notices from local governments, as required by state law, to make sure citizens know when there are hearings or other important actions being contemplated by county commissioners or others in power.
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 Southern Maryland News so that we may continue sharing such information with the community.
It’s your government. It’s your right to know. Enjoy the sunshine.
SOUTHERN MARYLAND NEWS EDITORIAL