James E. Moore

Published 9:29 am Tuesday, March 17, 2009

By Staff
It may not have appeared that way, given our past few days of rain, but Sunday officially kicked off what is known in the journalism ranks as Sunshine Week. The week, which ends Saturday, highlights the public’s right to know what its government is up to. Though Sunshine Week is just that — one week — the idea is that government should be open to close scrutiny all 52 weeks of the year.
Sunshine Week emphasizes the importance of the The Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1966, that makes government information accessible to the people.
According to the First Amendment Center, the federal law is based on the presumption that individuals have a right to know what their government is up to and that government agencies have a duty to provide full disclosure of all records that are not specifically and reasonably exempt.
In addition to the federal law, all 50 states and many cities have their own freedom-of-information laws that augment federal requirements.
The laws are important to everyone, not just to journalists seeking data for stories. A vast variety of information is available to anyone, subject to some restrictions. To find out more about filing FOIA requests and what types of information is available, visit the First Amendment Center Web site at www.firstamendmentcenter.org.
Sunshine Week may never have been as pertinent as it is now. The country is still involved in two wars and suffering its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The Obama administration has pledged a transparent government, but words are cheap.
The enormity of Congress’ $787 billion economic stimulus package and the myriad ways the money could be spent offers the new administration a golden opportunity to back its pledge. Americans are hurting, and they deserve to know precisely how their tax money is being used. Anything less is a sham.
Sunshine Week encourages citizens to take advantage of government information available to them and participate in the governing process.
As Congress and the Obama administration wrestle with the recession and government continues to grow, the effects will no doubt be felt also at state and local levels. This makes it even more important for citizens to keep an eye on their local officials and government bodies.
Let’s ensure that “transparency” doesn’t become just another nifty catch word, but that it truly reflects government working at all levels to provide citizens the information they need, want and deserve.