Next week is Sunshine Week, the newspaper industry’s annual celebration of open government.
The idea of an annual observation began in 2002 when the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state's public records law. The American Society of Newspaper Editors made it a nationwide campaign in 2005. The effort is now led by the News Leaders Association.
The coronavirus pandemic has made accessing public information more challenging than ever, with some governments refusing to even respond to requests for public records, according to the First Amendment Coalition. (Note the FAC logo in the masthead below this editorial. We are proud members.) Yet news organizations across the country continue to publish essential accountability journalism, breaking through barriers to open government to keep their communities informed.
We understand the challenges local government have faced during the past 12 painful months of COVID-19, but that must not diminish access to public information. Fortunately, Redlands City Clerk Jeanne Donaldson and Mayor Paul Barich both expressed their support to that commitment to the Redlands Community News last week.
California is fortunate to have the Ralph M. Brown Act, approved California Legislature in 1953 to guarantee the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.
That has been a particular challenge in the past several months as meetings have been virtual. However, the city clerk has been inundated with emails from Redlands citizens. Public involvement with city business remains robust.
Nearly 50 years after the passage of the Brown Act, you would think the issue of full disclosure of public records would be settled. But David A. Lieb of the Associated Press reports that as governors were considering how to reopen their economies following the initial coronavirus shutdown last spring, the Associated Press submitted open-records requests seeking copies of correspondence between governors, top health officials and key interest groups.
“After nine months and several more waves of COVID-19 surges and shutdowns, the AP is still waiting to receive records from about a dozen states,” Lieb writes. “Such delays have become common during the pandemic.”
He acknowledges that the challenges of working remotely have played a role in how long it’s taking governments to respond. But just because the City Hall doors are closed is no excuse for public officials to delay responses to public records requests.
It’s not just the pesky press. It’s the public’s right to know.
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