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Our Views: Bring public records out of the shadows
Government efforts to hide information dont serve the people's interest
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To send a letter to the editor, learn the letters policy fill out a form online or send to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

As an employer, what would you do if one of your hired workers, someone you pay out of your own pocket, decided to hide information from you that affected your livelihood, perhaps even your safety, your kids’ schools and your community?

In private business, employees who withhold key info from the boss and conduct matters in secrecy likely won’t remain on the payroll after their subterfuge is discovered.

So why do we allow such behavior in our publicly funded employees — elected and appointed officials in local government, education, law enforcement and other public agencies? These are people we hire directly at the ballot box or indirectly through appointments, and pay with our tax dollars. They work for us. And their mission statement is simple: Serve our needs, treat public money with respect, be honest and be open.

Most, though not all, do their part to fulfill that contract. It’s the final item on that list, transparency, that is most frequently brushed aside, even by otherwise well-meaning officials. That only adds to the growing mistrust Americans across the political spectrum have in their governmental institutions. Those who have been lousy stewards of the public’s money and faith won’t continue to receive much of either.

The kind of information free people are entitled to see takes on many forms, from minutes of government meetings, to information on salaries and other compensation, arrest reports and police actions, legal documents, even the kitchen inspections we publish Sundays that disclose which local restaurants run clean operations.

This week, March 15-21, is Sunshine Week, an annual observance of the need for transparent, open government as promised by our laws. Such an observance and our renewed diligence are clearly needed amid current reminders of how elected leaders attempt to cloak what we have a right to see.

In Washington, the big story last week was how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, early favorite for the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nod, concealed thousands of emails while in the Cabinet by using her personal account. Her claims that most were of a personal nature, that she didn’t want to carry two phones, yada, yada, were met with rolling eyes, even from her supporters.

Turns out she deleted nearly all of them, ensuring the public will never find out what sensitive information was being conveyed over such an insecure arrangement. She claims those she didn’t save were of a personal nature only, as if we’re supposed to take her word on that and let it go.

And that’s not all. Seems the entire state department marked just 61,000 out of a billion as public record and failed to archive the rest, regardless of content.

Emails and other electronic communication, just like letters and memos on paper exchanged between government officials, are subject to open record laws. No doubt Clinton and her cronies at State knew this and went out of their way to limit which would remain subject to scrutiny. Anyone who believes otherwise is naive.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg from an administration that its president promised would be the most transparent ever, yet is roundly criticized by watchdog groups as the worst.

Other transparency concerns have emerged at the state and local level. In recent months, many have pushed for law enforcement officers to wear body cameras to record confrontations, sparked by the shooting incidents in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. The idea is to have a video record of such encounters to protect both the police and citizens by offering visual evidence.

Yet already the battle has begun over whether such video footage should be made available to media outlets. It’s true privacy issues in some cases could create gray areas over what is and isn’t viewable, but withholding such material on a wide scale does not serve the public’s need to know, or ultimately its trust in the law agencies it pays to support.

Another debate has erupted over the state’s lethal injection drug and whether its suppliers should be kept secret. The state withholds that information to protect the drugmaker from recriminations by anti-death penalty groups.

Lawyers for death row inmate Kelly Gissendaner say they need that information to make a case on behalf of their client, who was scheduled to be put to death earlier this month but had her execution halted over concerns about the drug.

The question asked here, as in many cases is: Is keeping information shrouded from public view justified for sound, legal reasons or done merely to protect agencies, businesses or individuals from “looking bad” in the public eye? Governments should not be allowed to self-edit what the public has a right to see merely to save face.

And while access to information is vital to news reporting by media outlets, this isn’t about us. It’s part of our job to do the legwork and shine a light on governmental actions on your behalf. But the same public records we seek are, and should be, available to anyone who requests them. They are “public” records — not just media records, not privileged information, and not meant to be shoved in a drawer out of sight.

All of this is protected by law to ensure that the public services you fund through your tax dollars function on your behalf efficiently, openly and honestly. When they don’t, you have a right to know about it.

A transparent government that provides access to the people is the only kind that serves their interests in a civil society. Proceedings conducted in the dark behind closed doors are meant only to serve the people behind those doors.

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