Posted 3/14/17 (Tue)
By Neal A. Shipman
“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
James Madison, 4th president of the United States
and one of the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
Madison and the framers of this country’s Constitution and our Bill of Rights knew exactly what they were doing when they crafted the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed a free press. They knew firsthand the tyranny that American colonists faced from England’s King George III who prevented newspapers critical of him from publishing during the American Revolution.
Today, thanks to the vision and foresight of people like John Madison and others during the formation of this country, the citizens of the United States benefit from the role that newspapers play in making sure that the actions of their government - be it in Washington, D.C., or in state capitols or in county and city offices - is open and readily transparent to them.
But maintaining the transparency in the actions of government is becoming increasingly difficult. Many in government, be they elected officials or government employees, sometimes forget that they are not operating in a private business where their actions and decisions are shielded from the public eye. And that is a major fundamental difference between government and private business.
Private business is in the business of making money. And in doing so, many of the decisions made by owners, the board of directors, and by corporate officers have to be made in secrecy in order to maintain their competitive advantage.
Government, on the other hand, is in the business of serving the citizens of their jurisdiction. And as the framers of our constitution recognized, that means that there should be no secrets kept from the people that they serve. And that meant that all of their meetings and discussions should be transparent and open to the public.
Can some of the discussions held in public meetings be embarrassing or uncomfortable to elected officials?
But that doesn’t mean that those discussions shouldn’t be held before their constituents. The public is far better served when its elected officials feel a little uneasy discussing their possible decisions in front of their constituents rather than reaching a consensus prior to their meeting via phone conversations or emails prior to their public meeting. Or worse yet, behind closed doors.
Every year the second week of March, in celebration of Madison’s birthday, is designated as Sunshine Week, a national initiative that promotes the importance of open government and the freedom of information.
It’s a time when all government officials need to take an inward look at themselves and remind themselves that they owe it to the people that they serve to conduct the people’s business in the most transparent way possible.
And it’s a time when all citizens need to be aware of their rights to have access to public records and government meetings.
When government bodies and the people that they represent share the same information, there is a chance that the public will be far more supportive, and thus less critical, of actions taken by those they have elected to serve them.
Transparency in government is not just a good thing. It is essential. If we ever want to overcome this faulty closed-door culture and rebuild trust in government, then it must start with the presumption that everything is public and belongs to the people.