More heat may bring more light

March 31, 2012|Stuart Samuels

Another Sunshine Week passed on March 11-17 — and once again it was marked by a collective yawn from Maryland citizens.

In fact, some other weeks celebrated in March probably got more attention from those engaged in such Internet-fueled pursuits as Celebrate Your Name Week, National Sleep Awareness Week, Act Happy Week and even the painful-to-think-about National Root Canal Awareness Week.

Maybe Sunshine Week could do better if it joined forces with National Procrastination Week, which seems celebrated best by doing absolutely nothing except thinking about doing something — a sadly apt description of Sunshine Week’s record of success in this state.

Over the years, Maryland newspapers have spent many man-hours and increasingly precious space trying to drum up support for more transparency and information access in the state, especially online.

Despite those efforts, little of significance has changed in Maryland, mostly, it seems, because readers and state residents seem to have lacked any sense of consistent outrage about it that has been transmitted into the ballot box.

Perhaps that’s because newspapers haven’t done a very convincing job of demonstrating how a lack of information can undermine democracy.

Or perhaps the lack of access to information and some government meetings really doesn’t matter to most people unless it affects them personally. Then again, maybe they just don’t have time for it, since they are busy going viral over the latest YouTube video.

Meanwhile, politicians, who invariably preach transparency and open government at election time, generally practice inaction whenever it comes to changing laws to provide citizens with more easily accessible and decipherable information about the government’s business. It’s just too much work.

Disturbingly, two recent independent reports have ranked Maryland low on ethics and transparency, and with much room to improve in its online access to public documents.

A national report by The State Integrity Investigation ranked the state 40th out of 50 on corruption prevention, giving us a D-minus on their report card, according to

The nonpartisan group dredged up the state’s long history of political dalliance with the prosecution of governor, and later vice president, Spiro Agnew for bribery and tax fraud, and Marvin Mandel’s later  imprisonment for racketeering and mail fraud.

Mandel’s conviction was overturned, but the episode didn’t help the perception of Maryland as a state with a “culture of corruption” — a phrase that even became an empty rallying cry in a later gubernatorial election.

Not surprisingly, Maryland’s less than stellar ranking was blamed on the limited accountability of politicians; one-party rule; the cozy relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers; failure to correct problems uncovered in audits; and limited access to data, according to the account.

Another recently released study by The Center for Digital Government also found Maryland is falling behind in making information easily accessible online, according to a Capital News Service report.

The research institute gave the state a B on an A-to-C-minus scale, while neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia earned top marks, the report said.

Although the Free State likes to fancy itself as a kind of progressive nirvana, the truth is Maryland lags behind other states in making public records accessible online, ensuring public disclosure by politicians at every level and ensuring that as many government meetings as possible are public.

Nothing will change, however, until open government is a political priority, until every candidate and incumbent is asked by voters at election time to take specific steps to improve government accountability across the board.

Maybe the media should come up with a viral YouTube video in which a drunken-driving suspect in the back of a police cruiser singing a heroic rendition of “The Bohemian Rhapsody” puts in a plug for public access while he has your attention. Oh, yeah, I forgot; the first part of that idea has already been done.

Until then, maybe we should rechristen Sunshine Week Behind Closed Doors Week.

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