Regardless of what the weather is doing, this is Sunshine Week. The appropriately named initiative is a reminder of the need for government transparency and the role the media plays in preserving that transparency.
Spearheaded by the News Leaders Association, Sunshine Week was established in 2005 and occurs each March – coinciding with the birthday of James Madison and National Freedom of Information Day.
For much of the United States’ history, government transparency was a bit of an afterthought. But Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, requiring the disclosure of government documents – with some exceptions – upon request. Notably, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, news organizations account for less than 10 percent of requests under the act, with most of them coming from businesses, law firms and private citizens.
That serves as a reminder that government is empowered by and works for the public. Secrecy in conducting the people’s business is anathema to a functioning democracy.
In our state, the Washington Public Records Act passed in 1972 with 72 percent of the vote. Since then, the act has been revised several times by the Legislature and often has faced pushback from lawmakers. In 2018, they tried to exempt themselves from the act, but an outcry from the public and newspapers across the state helped compel Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill.
Still, legislators argue that they should enjoy some exemptions that are not available to municipal governments. Legislators are wrong; open government – along with fully and quickly responding to requests for information – is crucial to an informed public.
This year, the Legislature is considering House Bill 1056, which addresses the need for meeting notices and public access during a state of emergency. And House Bill 1329 would guarantee the public’s right to speak at government meetings or submit written testimony in advance.
Those would increase transparency, but at the same time, lawmakers are considering additional exemptions to the Public Records Act. These exemptions should be viewed with trepidation; as Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said during a hearing: “Exemptions to the Public Records Act need to be considered carefully and approved only in the narrowest and most strongly justified terms. Transparency in government is a fundamental value in our system.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers missed an opportunity to improve transparency in Olympia. They declined to advance proposals to reform title-only bills – a contemptible legislative trick in which the details of a bill are filled in only at the last minute.
While open government is the focus of Sunshine Week, it is inextricably tied to a free press. Local, independent media is vital to creating an informed public that holds government accountable. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
With good reason. Various studies have demonstrated that the nation’s decline in local newspapers has contributed to lower voter turnout, weakened civic engagement and increased government malfeasance.
The Columbian has been owned by Vancouver’s Campbell family for 100 years, even as large numbers of newspapers are selling out to large chains or stopping their presses for good.
Which means that it always is Sunshine Week in Clark County.