Next week, March 11-17, is Sunshine Week, set aside each year to acknowledge the need to maintain open government through laws and practices, and how that serves as the guiding light to our democracy.
As it turns out, it falls this year just after qualifying week for Georgia’s May election primary, when candidates for federal, state and local offices put their money down and their names on the dotted line to be placed on the ballot.
The confluence of these two events should serve to remind us who is really in charge of our government and to whom elected and appointed officials should answer.
It’s common in this era of 24/7 opinion-disguised-as-news pouring from broadcast and Web outlets to become lax about open government when officeholders from one’s favored party are in charge. Too many people tend to trust whatever “their guys” do and view any close scrutiny of their actions as partisan attacks, deeming them “fake news,” in the phrase of the moment.
It seems supporting someone for office now implies you’re no longer interested in holding them accountable, and are willing to ignore inconvenient facts and look the other way when they step over a line. This is true from the Oval Office all the way down to the local school boards, with seemingly half of voters inclined to give elected officials from their “team” a free pass.
But we need to remember those who are elected are not royal nobility, nor celebrities to be admired and fawned over. They are professionals hired to do a job, no more, no less. They are not chosen to better themselves, their cronies or their parties but to serve the greater good. That is their first and only job, and most do it well. But humans are imperfect beings who can be corrupted by power or tempted by self-interest; they won’t serve with honor and selflessness if those who elected them aren’t watching closely.
We see around the world what kind of governments can result from a ruling class that doesn’t abide by rules of transparency. Not only do smaller, developing countries have their share of autocrats who wield absolute authority, but even superpowers like Russia and China are controlled by strongmen accountable to no one but themselves and their party principles. The people there have little say when the governing party chooses to remove term limits and anoint a leader as president for life. America can never go down that one-way road and retain its character, no matter who those leaders may be or how much popular support they have earned.
However flawed it seems at times, our system of government still works better than the rest because the people have a window into what their hired hands are doing. That window is held open by rules governing public records and open meetings that deny those in power an easy way to hide from the sunshine. When we take those laws for granted and fail to apply them consistently, we risk suffering the same fate as our rivals across the globe.
It’s also too easy to assume open government rules only impact how journalists do their jobs. The access we gain to such information is with the intent to share it with the public, and that same information is available to anyone with the determination to acquire it.
How much does it matter? Think about it. Without open government laws, you may never know what local councils, commissions and school boards are deciding that affects your taxes, your schools, your roads, your public safety and your neighborhood.
Without open government laws, state legislators would be able to slip into innocuous bills any type of amendment that benefits themselves and their cronies without the public’s awareness. They often try to do so anyway, but fear of exposure keeps them from abusing the process further.
Without open government laws, federal agencies could continue to spy on you and retrieve your personal information without you ever knowing it or having any recourse to stop it.
Whether you’re right or left, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat or something in-between, there is no valid reason to support government leaders at every level who aren’t answerable to you and your neighbors.
The founders of his nation declared independence from an oppressive government and fought a war to establish a country based on liberty and the rule of law, not of connected individuals serving only a gentrified class. The way it has lasted 242 years is by ensuring the people have full access to the workings of government and a full say in who gets to pull those levers.
As campaigns for federal, state and local offices get underway, let’s all do our part as engaged citizens to hold candidates’ feet to the fire, both the ones you support and those you don’t, and insist those who are elected conduct themselves in an open, honest, responsive manner. Both they, and we, need to remember who the real bosses are in this country.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.