Open and transparent government it’s what the public should expect from officials at the local, state and national level, and it’s what officials love to say they support. Fortunately, a bill to put more hurdles in front of Granite Staters seeking to obtain public information was tabled in this legislative session. It should never have arisen in the first place.
March 15 through 21 is National Sunshine Week, a reminder that government business conducted in the open is at the heart of a democracy. If we don’t know what our officials are doing, we can’t hold them accountable.
The heart of Sunshine Week is the public’s Right to Know, which in New Hampshire is guided by statute RSA91-A. Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power. And that power is not something to be held close to the chest by politicians; it belongs to each of us. Sunshine Week is a national effort spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors, an annual effort to promote open government. Although the week was created by journalists, it’s not about newspapers. The motto of Sunshine Week is “Your Right to Know.” As a citizen in a democracy, you have the right to know how your government operates, and your elected officials have the obligation, except in carefully delineated situations, to conduct their business in the open and in accordance with the will of the people, even when that’s uncomfortable.
James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution, wrote that “consent of the governed” requires that people be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” That knowledge shouldn’t be hidden away, and in our participatory democracy, every citizen has a right to access government meetings and public records. And that’s the key. Keeping government transparent means newspapers must be watchdogs, ask the uncomfortable questions, get the information, and provide it in unbiased fashion to their readers. When roadblocks are thrown up, the Right to Know process is ready for everyone to use and they should not be hampered by excessive fees or court challenges.
We know it’s easier for officials to discuss public business in private, where strategies can be aired without anyone listening. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Discussion is to be public. In a quorum. On the record.
Making it hard for the public to find out what’s going on is not open government. You can criticize us for reporting things you don’t want to hear, but we support the right to air that information. Because without information, we’re all in the dark. The better choice is to let the sun shine in.