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We’re in the midst of “Sunshine Week,” a national event started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to promote open government and proper access to public information held by government.
Concluding Saturday, this year’s Sunshine Week once again reminds us that government does function best when its processes are transparent, when the governed can obtain correct and timely information about how and by whom decisions are made and how public money flows through the system.
For those within government, transparency lessens the temptations to cut corners or cut questionable deals. For those outside government, transparency helps signal when government is — or is not — working as it should.
In these aspects, transparency can build public confidence in government. Government officials are quick to say “Just trust us.” Transparency provides the rest of us with an ability to — in the Russian phrase deployed by the late President Ronald Reagan — “Trust but verify.”
Government transparency is important for all citizens, not just journalistic endeavours like the Ketchikan Daily News. But news gatherers often have substantial direct experience regarding the actual transparency of government entities.
Over time, the Daily News has appreciated the State of Alaska’s Open Meetings Act and the diligence that the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Ketchikan School Board and City of Ketchikan have shown in abiding by the letter and spirit of the law.
We’ve also appreciated the Alaska Public Records Act, which, with some specific exceptions, requires that “the public records of all public agencies are open to inspection by the public under reasonable rules during regular office hours.”
The Legislature should resist any urge to weaken these sunshine laws, which are a credit to the State of Alaska government.
Also at the state level, the government should continue to maintain its corps of department-level public information officers. With rare exception, these professionals are invaluable in providing and assisting in the search for relevant information.
We’ve had a bit less direct experience with the federal government in recent years. Southeast Alaska-based federal public information officials, especially with the U.S. Forest Service, National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, continue to be very helpful. The few information requests we’ve filed under the Freedom of Information Act in the past couple of years have received responses, as well. Our experience locally has been generally positive.
We hope it remains so, with all levels of government choosing to abide by the levels of transparency provided for by law. Any improvements of sunshine laws would be welcome, such as removal of the Alaska Legislature’s exemption from the Open Meetings Act.
Transparency is a key to competent and fair government, and we agree with the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in that: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”