It sure didn’t feel like it, but last week was Sunshine Week.
No, that is not a week of warm, wonderful sun. Sunshine Week is a week set aside annually to celebrate how important open government is to our democracy, and how freedom can die if the business of government is done in secrecy.
As a journalist, Sunshine Week has been something we used to show the public how they can keep the government – local, state and national – honest and open. You want minutes from a board meeting? They are available to you. Do you want to know the salaries of all of the people who work for the county? This is also an open record. Want to know if your crazy cousin Al got arrested last week? You can find out.
People love to hate on the press these days even more than usual. I know in my 30 years in the field, I have gotten used to people whining about “the media.” That is especially true of politicians, because they hate it when journalists ask them tough questions. They prefer the backroom deals while we want them done in the light.
Contrary to what some elected officials tell you, journalists are not your enemy. Quite the contrary, they work tirelessly to keep you informed. Sure, some national news media people are more about personality than journalism, but there are people across the country right now working hard to cover local governments for little pay, almost no glory and are getting a lot of grief for it.
I salute them now, and I will always salute them. Our democracy depends on them.
When I was editor of daily newspapers, we would use Sunshine Week to shine a light on how our local governments were doing their jobs. For example, we would use an open records request to ask the county government to supply salaries for all employees. Or we would send a citizen to the city clerk and request all travel expenses for council members for that calendar year and report on their experience. These are all open records and should be available to everyone.
We would write about our experiences and tell the public how they can access these records and more. It was a wonderful exercise in democracy.
Sometimes there would be pushback, and we would report on that too. When we requested the salary information from the local power supplier – a public entity – its manager balked. We reminded him, and the entities lawyer, that these were public records. Eventually, they came around before we had to file suit.
One paper I worked at had the salaries of all public workers – schools, county, local municipalities – available on a database on our Website. If you think that made us popular with public workers, you would be wrong. If you think it was a popular feature with the public, you would be right.
Also, if you think only national elected officials can be dirty, you are wrong. The guy you have known since grade school who is now on the local school board could be as crooked as they come. And do you know what your local county board is doing with your money?
Well, I do. I am at every county board meeting (via Zoom for the last year). And if you ever wonder, you can go to the county and ask for any record you want to see. You have that right.
So, let’s celebrate our democracy and those who help preserve it. We should always keep the heat on government.
Brad Jennings is editor of the Ogle County Life.