Dear Sunshine Week Santa,
How are you? I’ll bet you are busy in these final days before your big week.
Us? We at The Anniston Star can’t complain. Over the past year, we’ve witnessed responsible city leadership take the reins of power, an orderly process that was ushered in by our August 2010 editorial, “Timeout, time over for city council.”
We’ll assume you’ve been making your prerequisite list and checking it twice, so you are up on our usual chores — acting as an attorney for the most defenseless, afflicting the comfortable, comforting the afflicted, serving as a watchdog over government and how it spends our money, telling the stories of everyday life in our community and so on. It’s our job and we embrace it because we know — as the Founders did — that a free and inquisitive press is vital to keeping a democracy healthy.
If you don’t mind, I’ve been making a list of my own — a wishlist. It’s just a few items I hope you might deliver during Sunshine Week. Here goes:
Self-confident leadership over local public bodies. We need men and women who will fulfill their duties without feeling they need to look over their shoulders or be suspicious of ulterior motives of the newspaper. This is a particularly pressing need when it comes to open-government requests. Too often, too many local government officials seek a way to not comply with our requests for information.
We wish these officials would realize that Alabama’s Sunshine Laws exist for their benefit, as well as the public’s. Transparency in public bodies builds trust with the public. A public that is well informed on the operations and the finances of government and other public bodies is unlikely to assume the worst. Imagine that. Politicians and governments that have the trust of their constituents reap tremendous benefits and avoid paralyzing cynicism. Those governments that don’t will always face an uphill battle when trying to get things done.
OK, so we wish for more leaders who will drop their guard instead of putting up their fists when confronted with a request for open records. We’d also like one more bit of wisdom from these leaders: A respect for open-records and open-meetings laws. Politicians might not like them, but personal feelings have no place here.
Why are open-meeting laws important? So that, for example, your local city council will discuss how it plans to spend your tax dollars in front of you, or as is often the case in front of an Anniston Star reporter acting as your representative. City council members can't go off into a room in secret and decide to close a city park, or lay off half of the police force, or hire a consultant for $20,000.
Local politicians rubbed the wrong way by the demands of Alabama’s Sunshine Laws have little say in the matter. If they want to weaken the state’s open-government laws, they’ll have to become one of 140 members of the Legislature or the governor. That’s the way the system works. These laws aren’t a salad bar, where local governments get to pick and choose which ones they will obey.
It’s a pretty tall order, right, Sunshine Week Santa?
Well, I’m not quite done.
This wish is for everyone. The Alabama legislators who wrote the state’s open-government laws didn’t just have news media outlets in mind. These records are open to the public, meaning that while the state’s newspapers have done the bulk of the work in pressing for open government, the benefits are for everyone.
We often hear from readers who want to know why we’re asking for public documents. The answer is because history shows us that, without watchdogs, governments often shield uncomfortable truth from the people.
So, if it’s not too much to ask, we’d like to see Sunshine Week become something more than seven days when newspapers write odes to the cleansing power of sunshine to keep governments honest. We’d like to see the public join the celebration.
It’s a lot to ask, we know. However, Sunshine Week Santa, you, more than anyone, understand that democracies wither in darkness.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter @EditorBobDavis.