Vasché: Pull back the curtain on secrecy

Sunshine Week promotes openness in government

March 14, 2010 

"Government secrecy breeds stupidity."

As harsh as that may sound, columnist George Will hit the openness-in-government nail on the head when he wrote those words several years ago.

But that's not the only nail, so let me hammer a few more:

Government secrecy encourages arrogance and abuse, invites deception and dishonesty, and enables collusion and corruption.

Government secrecy fuels discord and discontent, destroys the public's confidence and severs a sacred trust.

And, in the end, government secrecy threatens the very democracy that has made this nation so great.

So critical is openness in government and freedom of information to America that each year we observe Sunshine Week, a nationwide focus on the public's right to know.

I've written before about how openness, accessibility and accountability are and always have been cornerstones of our democracy.

Our nation's founders understood that full well when they established our representative form of government more than 200 years ago. They knew that such a system required participation by an informed citizenry. And they understood that government needed to be as open and accessible to the people as possible.

And others who followed them have understood it as well.

Congress understood it when it passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. As he signed it into law, President Lyndon Johnson reminded us, "A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to pull the curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest."

Our state Legislature also understood it when it passed things such as the Brown Act open meeting law and the California Public Records Act.

Oh, how wonderful it would be if every elected and appointed public official understood it. Sadly though, while many do, many others don't.

Today, more than ever, we need to work together to rip open the curtains of secrecy and let the sun shine in on every nook and cranny of government, from Washington. D.C., to Sacramento to here at home.

I say "together," because if you think this is just about us, the news media, think again.

Sunshine Week is about all of us, as citizens, and our right to know about and participate in this government of, by and for the people.

Thus, I hope you'll join us in fighting for the public's right -- your right -- to know what government, be it federal, state or local, is up to, and why. I hope you'll join us in fighting to make sure the public's business is done in public, where anyone who wants to can participate. And, I hope you'll join us in fighting to make sure the records of government are readily accessible to the public.

How can you, as an individual citizen, help pull back those curtains of secrecy and let the sun shine in? By doing the same things we do here at The Bee: Use the various federal and state open government laws to hold public servants accountable.

The Freedom of Information Act covers public access to information at most federal agencies.

The Ralph M. Brown Act, named for the Modesto legislator who wrote it, is the state's open meeting law. It requires local governing bodies -- such as school boards and city councils -- to conduct the public's business in public, with some specific exceptions.

The California Public Records Act details the records and information that government agencies must make available to the public.

The Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act is the equivalent of the Brown Act for state boards and commissions.

More information on these and other laws is available from the First Amendment Coalition, one of the leading champions of open government in California.

On its Web site -- www.firstamendmentcoalition.org -- you'll find full texts of the laws, primers, frequently asked questions, and sample letters and request forms -- in other words, everything you need to stand up for your rights as a citizen.

While you're doing that, we at The Bee will continue to be vigilant in our historic "watchdog" role, keeping an eye on public agencies and officials, and doing everything in our power to make sure local government is open, accessible and accountable.

One of my favorite open government quotes appeared in the tiny Siskiyou Daily News in 1953, as the Legislature was considering Ralph Brown's bill. Those words still ring true today:

"There is always a tendency on the part of any government to feel it alone can guide the people in their best interest. Therefore, the public has not only the right but the duty to keep a constant watch on the functions of officials. While men in government are no less sincere and conscientious than those in other walks of life, power is a heady wine. An outlook of scrutiny towards government is a wise and a healthy attitude."

Enjoy the sunshine! And join me in hoping -- and working -- for even more.

Mark S. Vasché, The Bee's editor and senior vice president, can be reached at mvasche@modbee.com or 578-2356.

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