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Archive for Thursday, March 17, 2005

Shine some light

Maintaining access to important government documents is an important part of protecting democracy.

March 17, 2005

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There's nothing that inspires trust like being able to see something with your own eyes.

That same principle applies to government; the more access the public has to government information, the greater the trust.

In recognition of that fact, news media across the nation this week are recognizing "Sunshine Week" to remind Americans of their right to know what their government is doing.

This isn't a small concern. In fact, a new survey conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs on behalf of Sunshine Week, showed that seven out of 10 Americans are concerned about government secrecy, and more than half think there isn't enough access to government records.

Because our business is to seek out and share information that is important to the public, we in the news media are intensely aware of how much or how little access the public has to government records. Most members of the public don't have the time to pursue records and must depend on the news media to take on that responsibility for them.

In Kansas, several measures are being considered to increase access to government records. Although Kansas passed its Open Records Act in 1984, there are hundreds of provisions throughout state law that keep records secret. In some cases, those laws are necessary to protect individual privacy, but in other cases, the public has a right to examine that information in order to monitor the operation of government.

One measure that seems likely to be signed into law this year is a bill that would require full disclosure of any public employee's total compensation package. The bill is the outgrowth of a successful lawsuit filed by several media outlets, including the Journal-World, to force disclosure of Kansas University Athletic Director Lew Perkins' compensation package.

Open meetings are another concern. Meetings like those held by Kansas Atty. Gen. Phill Kline with groups that totaled more than a majority of the Kansas Board of Education are the kind of thing that gets media attention. Members of the public have a right to be notified of such meetings so they or the media can monitor what public business is discussed or decided there.

Around the world, the level of trust and loyalty enjoyed by a government almost always is linked to how open government operations are to the public. The more a government -- city, county or national -- tries to hide, the more suspicion it raises, and, make no mistake, those in government like to hide.

The right to access government information isn't just for the news media; it's for every American citizen. As Sunshine Week reminds us all, it's a part of our democracy that we should never take for granted.

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