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Editorial: Holding our leaders accountable

Sunshine Week begins today, March 11, and is intended to educate the public about the importance of open government and to remind them about the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.

The American Society of News Editors founded Sunshine Week in 2005 to remind citizens that they deserve to have access to their government and full knowledge about how decisions are made and how their money is being spent.

The celebration of open government has been held every year since to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.

Madison once said: “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.”

The bedrock of the public’s right to know is the Federal Freedom of Information Act. That law allows for the full or partial disclosure of information and documents controlled by the United States government.

The Act defines agency records subject to disclosure, outlines mandatory disclosure procedures and grants nine exemptions to the statute. 

“Open government” means that the business of the people belongs to the people and should be available for public scrutiny. Transparency, trust and accountability are essential to keep our representative democracy running smoothly.

Government that is not transparent is prone to undue influence and corruption. It’s not enough to allow the public to attend meetings; in order for citizens to participate in the democratic process, decision-making must be conducted in full view of its constituents.

The need for transparency in local, state and federal government transcends political parties and ideologies.

To ensure that openness is given top priority, every state has adopted laws requiring governments to provide information with a minimum of fuss and without officials charging outrageous fees for that access.

Diligence among media watchdogs is paramount, especially during a time when there are ongoing threats to transparency being proposed regularly by legislators who have created hundreds of new exceptions to open meeting and records laws in recent years.

Oregon law now has more than 500 exemptions to the disclosure of public records.

This is a dangerous trend in a country founded on individual liberties. Watchdogs are needed now more than ever to alert the people when laws that strip away their protections are proposed.

Citizen engagement and participation is the best way to guard against government secrecy. Public apathy sets the stage for agencies to abuse power.

It is up to news outlets and citizens to challenge any move by a government body to make decisions out of the public eye, or to deny access to materials showing how those decisions were reached.

The Chronicle takes its watchdog role very seriously. We will not hesitate to write a news story or editorial exposing any hidden agenda that drives the action of a government body, or a decision-making process that is not above board and inclusive of public input.

Meetings should never be conducted behind closed doors without a meaningful explanation as to why. When our reporters expose clandestine actions, they are often ridiculed, belittled and even threatened. We don’t mind, it is our job to keep government honest.

Our founding fathers were not always pleased with their newspaper coverage, but they understood that a free press was democracy’s best defense. They enshrined that ideal as one of the five freedoms in the First Amendment.

Holding those in power accountable is at the heart of having a free press.

The First Amendment connected freedom of speech and freedom of the press for the express purpose of baring the secrets of government and distributing information.

The founders also urged that citizens be informed and stay vigiliant to protect their freedoms. Sadly, citizen apathy is so high now that government officials have grown brash about making deals in secret and cutting off the free exchange of information.

Many Americans are alarmingly ignorant of how government is supposed to operate, what powers are given to elected leaders and what the boundaries are around their authority.

Often, our reporters are the only ones at public meetings. We note that most people come to the meeting after the one they should have been at; the one where a decision was made that affected their lifestyle.

We urge you to stay involved and make your voices heard when something is happening that you disagree with. Preserving the American way of life depends on it.

— The Dalles Chronicle


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