The sun was shining brightly March 10 to usher in Sunshine Week in Georgia.
As citizens become more involved in local government, show up at public meetings, comment during the allotted times, circulate petitions, protest actions they believe usurp their rights, file open-records requests and hold elected officials accountable, the more the sun will shine on local government.
The darkness of executive sessions and back-room deals casts a cloud over local government and those elected to serve.
Sunshine Week is all about government transparency. Newspapers everywhere join their press associations, the American Society of News Editors, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Information organizations, open-government advocates and citizens in communities throughout the country this week in this national initiative.
Sunshine laws matter because the rights of all citizens matter. However, simply complying with the state’s open meetings and open records acts is not enough. It is disheartening that in a free nation, something like Sunshine Week would even be needed.
It is disenchanting that local officials hide behind the law when they hide the people’s business. It is disappointing to hear our elected officials lash out when someone questions their lack of transparency.
Every time local officials are challenged about things that transpire in executive sessions or outside of open public meetings, they immediately start pushing back and protesting, saying, “We didn’t break the law.”
We challenge them to think about how that sounds.
Moreover, we challenge them to think about what that means. It means they know they did the public’s business in private, but they technically complied with the provisions of Georgia’s Open Meetings Act.
When public records are requested, more often than not records custodians stall the request, check with administrators or lawyers to find out if they have to make the records available and then charge the maximum amount of money they are allowed by the law to produce the records.
Think about that.
The records belong to the public.
The records are kept in the public’s buildings.
The records are documents that were produced by public employees.
The records are documents that were created using public equipment on the public’s time.
And now you have to decide if the public has a right to see their own records and double-charge them to produce and reproduce the records that were created using taxpayer dollars to begin with.
It is high time for our county commissioners, city-council members, boards of education, water authorities, state representatives and senators and all public officials to take a hard look at government transparency.
It is time for our elected officials to redefine what they mean by transparency. It is obvious most elected officials merely mean that they comply with existing law. That is a bit like saying someone is a great driver because they never go over the posted speed limit.
Think about democracy. Think about freedom. Think about what it means to be self-governed. All the business of government is the public’s business — period.
We are not “against” public officials. We are “for” the public. Whether all public business should be open to the public and all public records should be available to the public should not even be a debate.
Just because questionable open meetings laws in Georgia allow certain things to take place in executive sessions does not mean they should. Local officials need to change their practices and state legislators need to change the law.
Georgia has some of the most lax open-meetings legislation in the United States, and local governments in our state hide behind the allowance for executive session as a matter of course.
In fact, some local governing bodies go into executive session almost every time they meet, when in other states, local governments meeting behind closed doors almost never happens.
It is time for a change.
It is past time for wholesale change in our Open Meetings Act. Until that day comes, public officials need to take the high road and go above and beyond the mere letter of the law.
Stop hiding all personnel matters. These public employees work for all of us. They have chosen to take public jobs. If public employees are doing something they should not be doing, we have every right to know every detail.
Stop hiding all legal matters. If someone has sued local government, they are suing our public institutions and we have every right to know why and what is being done about it.
Stop hiding real estate transactions. You are spending the public’s money. These purchases are massive and account for a high percentage of how taxpayers’ dollars are used. We have every right to be privy to those discussions.
Government is not private enterprise, and you are not the board of directors of a privately held company.
You are public servants, so serve the public.
Let the sun shine in.
Zachary is the editor of the Clayton News Daily, Jonesboro, and the Henry Daily Herald, McDonough. He has been a strong advocate for openness in local government.