Sunshine Week begins today. There’s a 20-percent chance of rain, and maybe 10-percent chance the first part of the work week.
But that’s not what Sunshine Week is about. It’s about a celebration and acknowledgment of open access to public information.
We can say without equivocation that this year’s Sunshine Week is the most significant since the federal Government in the Sunshine Act was passed by Congress in 1976.
That legislation came on the heels on one of the nation’s worst government scandals, an intricate web of lies and intrigue that forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office.
Even before the federal sunshine law, many states had already created laws to open government to the public, giving citizens and media the right to petition for virtually all information.
Think about that, having to file a lawsuit to gain access to information and government operations that you are financing with your tax dollars. Technically and morally, that information is yours.
But the evolution of the governing process too often puts public information beyond the public’s reach. And too often the result is a miasma of corruption at the highest levels of government.
That belief, that reality seems to be what’s driving so much of the political discord in this country. People generally want and seek the truth, because the truth is what makes this nation great.
But the truth is often not the friend of career politicians. Voting records of elected officials can create political vulnerabilities, facts opponents can use against the incumbent in the next election. The concept of absolute power corrupting absolutely is what turns many good people into secretive, conspiratorial politicians.
The purpose of sunshine laws, which all states have some form of, is to strip away the secrecy and reveal what elected officials are doing and why they are doing it.
It’s a painfully simple concept, but one too many elected officials will go to almost any lengths to subvert. And it is why so many media agencies have to go to court, filing lawsuits to gain access to information that should have been part of the public domain in the first place.
Most sunshine laws have rules and exceptions. The general rule is that if an elected body is holding a meeting with a voting quorum present, any member of the public and media may sit in on that meeting.
Some state laws are tougher than others, and it should come as no surprise that California has some of the strictest sunshine laws on the books.
There is the Ralph M. Brown Act, which has been around since 1953, and which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.
The Brown Act has been expanded a lot over the years. It was enacted in response to public concerns over informal, undisclosed meetings held by local elected officials, often at bars or cafes. City councils, county boards, and other local government bodies were avoiding public scrutiny by holding secret workshops. The Brown Act applies to city and county government agencies, boards and councils. The Act has been updated to apply to email communication, leading to restrictions on the number of parties that can be copied on electronic messages. The companion Bagley-Keene Act requires open meetings for state government agencies.
Free and relatively easy government information access is never a given, which is why there is a Sunshine Week each year, to remind citizens of the right to know what their elected representatives are doing, and to remind lawmakers of their responsibilities to constituents.