News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
SUNDAY, MARCH 11, 2007


Sunshine Week a reminder that democracy needs open government

Many people think that secrecy in government is not their problem. Unless they personally ask for and a public official refuses them something as simple as a copy of a birth certificate, they are not concerned.

Denying you a copy of a wreck report so you can get your insurance company to pay for a damaged vehicle would be upsetting, too. Government secrecy becomes personal at that level.

Government wouldn’t deny you such a simple request, you say. But government every day denies requests for records that are by law open to the public. You should care because the trend toward more secrecy in government affects you, too, even if it is not denying you something as personal as a birth certificate. If the trend toward closed government continues, a bureaucrat might someday withhold your birth certificate copy in the name of national security.

This is Sunshine Week across the United States. It is a time when members of the media and other advocates for greater openness and less secrecy in government alert the public to the dangers of a closed society.

Sunshine Week comes at an opportune time in Morgan County where people have a ringside seat to government secrecy.

You’re tired of the e-mail controversy at the Morgan County Courthouse and over at Sheriff Greg Bartlett’s new jail. Right? But, the denial of access to records, and the rules the County Commission formulated recently to make it more expensive and more difficult to see public records, is secret government.

If you really want closed government to infuriate you, read about the state Legislature voting itself a 60-percent pay raise last week. How did your legislators vote? You don’t know because the pay increase passed on a voice vote. Legislators made sure you will never know for certain how they voted.

From the White House to the Courthouse, public officials withhold public records every day for one basic reason: We the people allow them to do so. A recent poll shows that 69 percent of people believe the federal government is somewhat or very secretive. That’s up from 62 percent last year. Yet, people don’t demand open government. They would, however, if they couldn’t get an accounting of their Social Security fund.

Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post, led the newspaper through the Watergate exposé. He is an honorary chairman for Sunshine Week.

“Open government laws are absolutely essential to getting the information officials might prefer to see locked away in a safe,” he said. “People may not think about Sunshine Laws every day, but when you need them, you need them.”

Think about government denying you something as essential as a copy of your birth certificate. It could happen.

Add your voice to those celebrating Sunshine Week.

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