“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. 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.”
― James Madison
Government comes in for plenty of criticism from all sides. As citizens, we may never agree on what government should or shouldn't be doing, but can all agree that we can't even have the debate if we don't know what our government is up to.
That's why public meetings and public records laws are so important — and why the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press team up each year to sponsor Sunshine Week.
The week that begins today is timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and a champion of the Bill of Rights.
Madison, born in 1751, could not have envisioned our modern world where technology permits the instantaneous sharing of information among millions of people, but he certainly would have wanted that information to be accurate and freely available. Some historians say Madison's words quoted above were actually written in support of public schools, not free access to government information. Either way, knowledge and the power it bestows are essential to a functioning democracy.
Three examples of public information in just the past couple of weeks show the importance of public access to information about government.
The first involves the firing of Talent City Manager Tom Corrigan. Talent resident Derek Volkart filed a public records request for a memo summarizing an investigation of employee complaints about Corrigan. The city denied the request, and Volkart appealed to District Attorney Beth Heckert, who determined that the memo was public, and the city released it.
That example shows not only the power of public records laws, but the fact that they are available to any member of the public, not just news reporters.
The second example illuminated the motivation behind the Trump administration's decision to shrink two national monuments in Utah. A public records lawsuit by the New York Times and Yale University Law School revealed that an Interior Department review of the monuments focused on coal, oil, gas, grazing lands and timber resources that had been placed off-limits when the monuments were created. Memos obtained by the lawsuit directed the department to calculate annual production of energy resources on the lands and how creating the monuments might have hurt mining.
The third example involves Gold Hill's dysfunctional government and one local businessman's request for public documents involving code violations. The city told Sawyer's Paddles owner Pete Newport he would have to prepay $3,100 to cover copying costs and staff time. Oregon law permits governments to charge reasonable fees for copying and staff time, but more than $3,000 seems excessive. For all we know, the city may be on solid ground regarding Newport's complaints, but he's still entitled to see public records without exorbitant fees.
Without public records laws, government can go about its business quietly, avoiding public scrutiny. With those laws, the public — and news reporters working to inform them — can shine much-needed light on what government is doing.