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gainesvilletimes.com. Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
Tap your finger on a smartphone and you’ve got access to your bank account, your favorite restaurant’s menu and your child’s baseball schedule.
But try accessing information about how your tax dollars are spent and things can get a lot more complicated.
Last week, we observed “Sunshine Week,” a symbolic period established by the nation’s news media and other organizations to recognize the importance of an open, transparent government in a free society.
Governments, school systems, law enforcement agencies and others that depend on tax dollars vary in the degree to which they comply with what are commonly called “sunshine laws.” But as the world at large becomes more accessible, many such agencies are not keeping pace, from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta and closer to home.
Open records laws allow anyone to file requests for a diversity of information that should be public, such as police incident reports, university budgets, emails between government officials, salaries of government employees and 911 recordings. But those who guard this information too frequently don’t know what the laws require and may refuse information that should be made available.
Those who are served by government shouldn’t have to struggle at every turn to get information that belongs to them, and that includes the vast majority of information held by any governmental entity. The exceptions to sunshine laws should be few and very specific, such as details of an ongoing criminal investigation.
Many government agencies go out of their way provide the sort of transparency inherit in various public record laws, but there are some gatekeepers who stubbornly cling to the idea that the public only needs to know what a government decision-maker wants to tell them.
In fact, in almost every session of the state’s General Assembly, there seems to be some effort to exclude some new piece of information from existing open records laws, such as the bill approved this year that would exempt private probation companies from compliance with Georgia’s open records laws.
Granted, there are those whose zeal for seeing what goes on in the public domain exceeds reasonable demands, creating hardships for governments when certain individuals abuse the law by filing request after request for information. Those abuses, however, cannot be used as an excuse to erect walls between the public and information to which it deserves access.
In Georgia, open records laws require that government agencies decide within three days of a request whether the information sought will be provided, and if so to do so in a timely manner. If the request is denied, the law requires a written explanation for doing so.
At the federal level, however, the waiting period for information can be far longer. For example, The Times last summer filed a request for the numbers of detainees at the Corrections Corp. of America facility that was located in the old Hall County Jail on Main Street. It took more than six months to produce the numbers, and the CCA had already exited the facility by the time the information was delivered.
In recent years, local governments have certainly made progress in becoming more open to public inspection. Hall County Board of Commissioners meetings are videotaped and posted online along with agendas and meeting minutes. Most local governments and school systems now post their meeting times and agendas online, making them available to anyone with an Internet connection.
But beyond responding to official requests, governments sometimes seem hesitant to provide information, or lack the technology to make it readily available. The Internet has changed the expectation of availability of government records, but the cost associated with using technology, and the willingness of officials to do so, means that there is great inconsistency in what is available and what is not.
In Hall County, information about court proceedings cannot be accessed online by the general public. In other counties, such as Gwinnett, information about court calendars and pending cases is available online. The same is true with other public records in all agencies and departments. From county to county, availability and accessibility are based on budget considerations and the whims of local leadership.
Often the debate over laws related to access of government records focus on the efforts of journalists in their role as public watchdogs. While that responsibility is one that we willingly shoulder, laws geared to keeping the public informed about what government does actually are meant to benefit everyone. Journalists should have no more access to public information than does anyone else.
The inner workings of government and how our tax money is spent are everyone’s business, and the public officials we hire, both elected and
appointed, have no right to keep it from us. That’s how they do it in Cuba, North Korea and countries where the press, and the people, are only as free as their dictators allow. We’re better than that.
When government records at any level — local, state or federal — are held out of public view and decisions made behind closed doors, nothing good can come of it. Only those with something to hide should think otherwise.
There’s an easy metaphor to summarize this view: Without sunshine, all living things will eventually wither and die. The same goes for freedom.