Sunshine Week about the public's right to know
This week is dedicated to the importance of open government and freedom of information in our democratic society, principles that should be a year-round concern for all of us.
Open government is good government in our free and democratic society.
But too many public officials have not gotten the message. While some officials work hard to foster openness, examples abound of state and local governments trying to restrict access to public records in the name of privacy or other concerns, or meeting behind closed doors for reasons that aren't warranted.
Hence the goal of National Sunshine Week, which starts today, to emphasize the importance of open government and freedom of information. This is a week dedicated to bringing the need for open government to the public's attention, a concern for all of us because of the preference of many in government to operate in the dark.
Participants in National Sunshine Week include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofit organizations, schools and others. Sunshine Week is about the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why.
The fact is that Illinois and all other states have a freedom of information law and open meetings law to try to guarantee citizens access to information that they need to be informed about government activities at the state and local levels. The federal government has its own freedom of information law. Though access laws are tools for journalists, they are used far more often by citizens and businesses that seek information they can't get otherwise.
There should be no tension between government and the people it serves over access to information or closed meetings. The intent of the state's Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act is clear: public records are presumed to be open and accessible, and the meetings of public bodies are open to the public. Both acts specify exemptions to allow governments to withhold records or meet in private, but they are to be construed narrowly.
But the reality is that too often, public officials refuse to provide public information or meet improperly in closed sessions, either from ignorance of the law or because they see openness as an intrusion. It seems as though government officials often get confused over who is working for whom.
Locally, there's a bit of irony in National Sunshine Week coming a week after Unofficial St. Patrick's Day on the University of Illinois campus. Unlike in the past, Champaign police this year refused to provide timely information on the number of arrests and incidents that occurred, information that is eminently in the public interest, until five days after the event concluded.
Also in the last week, the Urbana school board met in apparent violation of the Open Meetings Act because it did not provide the proper public notice, and a University of Illinois faculty senate group may have violated the law to discuss the awarding of an honorary degree.
Coverage of access issues by journalists is important in telling the public about access denied or what records reveal, and News-Gazette reporters have frequently used FOIA requests to obtain information for stories. Long-running disputes remain with the city of Champaign over FOIA requests for information that we believe to be public, beliefs backed by the state attorney general's office. One case in particular is worth noting.
The city partially denied a request seeking electronic communications, including cellphone text messages, sent and received by members of the city council during meetings and study sessions made on the basis that it could not be required to produce electronic messages on personal devices because they were not "public documents" under its control. The attorney general's public access counselor issued a binding opinion in November 2011 that maintained the records were subject to disclosure because they pertained to public business. The city filed a complaint for review in Sangamon County circuit court, which held last July that the attorney general was right. Last August, the city appealed again to the 4th District Appellate Court, where it awaits a date for argument.
Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that helps them to vote intelligently, make their lives better and their communities stronger. But it's only a start. While Sunshine Week focuses attention on the issue once a year, ensuring open government should be a year-round concern for all of us.