Sunshine Week began Sunday. It is the annual national observance of laws and policies that promote transparency in government. It was started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors.
Sunshine week serves an opportunity for everyone to be reminded about why open government is important to their own lives and to their communities.
There are plenty of examples at the federal level, one of the most infamous stemming from the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton came under fire for setting up a private computer server to handle her official State Department email.
Likewise, the George W. Bush administration, working under the cloud of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, conducted many covert meetings. National security and safety will always prove a hot topic when it comes to government transparency.
Those are high-profile examples, but transparency laws are important at every level of government.
In 2015, Iowa’s government and accountability was given a D+ in a report from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization; and Global Integrity, which conducts research aimed at supporting open and accountable governance.
Those of us who follow state government will recall the expensive scandals involving the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium, as well as the state’s film tax credits fiasco that followed. In both of those cases, taxpayer money was used frivolously.
Iowans are entitled to know where tax-generated revenue is directed and why. The same goes for U.S. citizens at the federal level and residents of communities under county and municipal governments.
Our various city councils, school boards, county boards of supervisors — all are subject to the open records and open meetings laws. That includes the boards, commissions and committees that serve under them.
“Walking quorums” were once one of the most apparent loophole in the laws, allowing elected officials to skirt open meetings laws by discussing matters in a series of conversations without a majority of a government body present in any one of the conversations. They can be nearly impossible to discover.
Today, as technology continues to advance exponentially, there are myriad ways for officials to discuss matters germane to the public interest without piquing the interest of the public.
We believe progress has been made, and the annual Sunshine Week has played a part in that progress.
In 2012, the General Assembly approved the creation of the Iowa Public Information Board. The board has the authority to issue both informal advice and declaratory orders with the force of law regarding the state’s open meetings and record laws.
Since taking effect in 2013, the board has been able to mediate public record disputes and to help many of those fighting for access to information and to avoid costly legal fees.
The board reduced the need for and the extra expense of litigation. It provides protection for government employees who follow the advice of the board. However, the board, being made up of humans, has also had its controversies in recent years.
One thing we can always be sure of: As technology progresses and laws change, transparency laws will always need review, and vigilance must be maintained. Use of email, for example, has become a topic from the federal government all the way down to local officials. Texts between government officials can easily be viewed as the new walking quorums.
While the press uses the open records and meetings laws more often than members of the general public, all citizens have the right to file Freedom of Information Act requests and get information regarding government meetings.
We would hope all will come to see the importance of conducting government business in an open manner. A free society can only function correctly if its citizens have timely access to information concerning its government dealings. And having to pay significant amounts of money to gain that access will effectively keep some citizens from gaining the access they seek and deserve.