Sunshine Week: Government openness is vital to democracy’s functioning
Democracy functions best when the public has access to detailed information about what government officials do and why they do it.
Iowa and most other states have what are called “sunshine” laws. They require most public business to be conducted in meetings open to the public. There are also statutory requirements that most records are to be available for scrutiny by the press and any other interested party.
The week that ended Saturday was designated Sunshine Week. It is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.
So what happens when business is done outside the rules or records that should be open are kept secret?
Statutory mechanisms exist to ensure that if governmental bodies don’t live by the rules they can be called to account.
In 2012, the Legislature approved and Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law an overhaul of Iowa’s open meetings and records law. The goal was to guarantee greater access by the public to information about government proceedings and decisions.
The Iowa Public Information Board was created. It oversees the enforcement of open meetings and open records laws. Board members and staff evaluate claims that violations of these laws have taken place and initiate corrective action as needed.
It is important to the preservation of democratic government that the exceptions to doing business in the open should be few and carefully justified.
By serving as an investigative focal point for complaints that can be easily accessed by the public this new board is an important step forward.
The best guarantee of openness, however, is for voters to support candidates for office who have a strong personal commitment to governmental openness. The Times-Republican urges citizens to pay close attention to the views those who seek their votes hold on this important matter.
When government officials find it inconvenient to do business and keep records in an open manner, we all have good reason to be alarmed.
Only people with questionable motives have anything to fear from public scrutiny. That’s why strong sunshine laws are absolutely vital.