'Sunshine Week' and open government

March 13, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

When Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich barred all state employees from talking to two writers for The (Baltimore) Sun last fall, many citizens assumed that this was a fight between the press and the government.

It's much more than that. It's an effort by an elected official to control who covers his administration. And the message is clear: Those who ask the tough questions or take him to task will be excluded.

If Ehrlich's order were an isolated incident, that would be one thing. But it's becoming a nationwide problem, as government officials across the U.S. attempt to use their power to restrict the public's access to information.

That's why a variety of news organizations, including the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association and The Herald-Mail, have put together Sunshine Sunday, which is today, and Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know, which continues through next week.


Through a variety of editorials, news and feature stories, the paper will show why it's important for reporters and the public to have access to government information - and to support reporters' quest for the same facts.

One of the best reasons for citizens to care about access is because, in most cases, their taxes have paid for what government is trying to keep secret.

For example, when John Howard, the former director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, left his job in May 2002, it took a lawsuit by former Clear Spring resident Thomas Firey to divulge that Howard's severance package cost the county $31,000.

That was $31,000 of taxpayers' money. The people should have a right to know how their money is being spent without hiring a lawyer and going to court.

In 1995, after the Washington County School Board paid for an audit to look into allegations of misuse of public money, then-Superintendent Wayne Gersen refused to release it, forcing The Herald-Mail to take the system to court.

In 1997, The Herald-Mail filed a Freedom of Information request after officials refused to release a copy of a tape made of a West Virginia State Police chase that ended when the suspect rear-ended a car, killing a 21-year-old Inwood, W.Va., resident.

That same year, The Herald-Mail filed a Freedom of Information request seeking a report that police refused to release on the drowning death of a 7-year-old in the pool of the Hagerstown YMCA. It wasn't released until July 1999, after the departure of then-Police Chief Dale Jones.

The problem is not confined to Washington County. In 2003, the press association sent 15 reporters - acting only as citizens - to 15 Maryland agencies to get 25 documents, which by law should be public information.

The results? Documents paid for with tax dollars were denied 60 percent of the time.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. promised to upgrade state employees' training and recently wrote an opinion column in which he renewed his pledge to open government in general and the state's Open Meeting Compliance Board specifically.

As Mark Tapscott, director of The Heritage Foundation's Center of Media and Public Policy, said recently, reporters can seem brusque and inconsiderate when seeking such records.

But reporters aren't asking these questions to satisfy their own personal curiosity, but to protect the public.

For example, if the driving record of a candidate or elected official shows a series of violations, shouldn't citizens know about his or her attitude toward the laws and rules of the road before they cast a vote?

Of course they should, and they shouldn't need press credentials or a media lawyer to pry it out of government's hands.

This is not to say that all government officials or agencies are stingy with public information. For example, the Washington County Health Department regularly shares information about restaurant inspections. We publish them so that when you go out for a meal with your family, you'll know whether the eatery you chose was recently cited for rodent infestation.

In other cases, with other agencies, information is not so easily obtained. It would be easier to get that information if citizens realized what a stake they have in finding out things such as backgrounds of public officials and candidates, the safety of public facilities and finally, how their money is being spent.

In too many cases, government tells the public it can't have such information. "Trust us," they say.

It's hard to have trust without some basis for it. As Warren Burger, then chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said in 1980:

"People in an open society do not expect infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing."

That's our job at The Herald-Mail: To be the public's eyes and ears, to attend the meetings citizens can't because work or family duties make it impossible and to challenge government officials who want to keep public information secret.

Please read the Sunshine Week articles and think about how important access to information is to you and your family.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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