Editorial: Sunshine Week is a reminder that government belongs to us

Editorial from The Vindicator

Almost everyone knows about Groundhog Day on Feb. 2. Far fewer know what comes about six weeks later, whether or not Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow: Sunshine Week.

To be fair, Phil has been around a lot longer. Sunshine Week, a project of the American Society of News Editors, is just 10 years old. But to those who care about how government operates, Sunshine Week should be important 52 weeks of the year.

Open records and public meetings laws have been called “Sunshine Laws” for decades. Sunshine is an apt metaphor because good government grows only when the light shines on what elected officials and government bureaucrats are doing.

Ohio has had a strong sunshine law on the books since the 1970s, but over the years it has been weakened more often than strengthened by amendments and court rulings. Last year we bemoaned an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for recalcitrant public servants to avoid having to pay damages after blocking access to public records.

This year, while all the news is not good, it must be noted that Treasurer Josh Mandel has the Online Checkbook up and running, which provides easy access to information about how Ohio is spending the billions of dollars it collects from taxpayers. Log on to OhioCheckbook.com.

Attorney general’s seminars

Attorney General Mike DeWine continues to conduct seminars around the state for public officials and any interested individuals on what Ohio’s sunshine laws require, how officials must follow the law and what people can do when government falls short of being open.

And just the other day, Auditor Dave Yost announced a new program aimed at helping people resolve public records complaints without having to hire a lawyer. That’s an important advance, especially given the Supreme Court ruling we mentioned earlier.

Yost, Mandel and DeWine are all Republicans.

That said, it doesn’t take much effort to think of examples over recent months that prove too many local officials still haven’t grasped the essential concept of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws: That when there is doubt, the law should be liberally construed toward openness.

That principle is clearly stated in the law, and yet time and again officeholders, officials and employees chose to go the opposite way. They take the position that someone asking for a record must prove they are entitled to it, though the law clearly states that someone seeking a record need not give a reason and need not identify himself or herself.

Sunshine requests have been in the local news in the last month after The Vindicator requested salary information for employees in former Mahoning County Auditor Michael Sciortino’s office, for instance. Or when the paper requested information after the Youngstown Board of Education summarily replaced two representatives to the Academic Distress Commission.

Nationally, news organizations are in constant battle with the federal government for access to information that should be made readily available to the people.

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of the Associated Press, says it’s getting harder and more expensive to gain access to public records.

One example:

“A few months ago, the Treasury Department sent us 237 pages in its latest response to our requests regarding Iran trade sanctions. Nearly all 237 pages were completely blacked out, on the basis that they contained businesses’ trade secrets.

“When was our request made? Nine years ago.”

After five years of trying to get access to files covering Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, the AP finally filed suit.

White House pettiness

President Barack Obama promised transparency when he came to office, but clearly hasn’t delivered on matters large and small. As an example of how petty things can become, Pruitt tells this story:

“In government emails that AP obtained in reporting about who pays for Michelle Obama’s expensive dresses, the National Archives and Records Administration blacked out one sentence repeatedly, citing a part of the law intended to shield personal information such as Social Security numbers or home addresses.

“The blacked-out sentence? The government slipped and let it through on one page of the redacted documents: ‘We live in constant fear of upsetting the WH (White House).’”

Public servants — from local clerks to the president of the United States — have to learn that sometimes they are going to be embarrassed by the release of public documents. Their sense of fear or anger or frustration does not trump the law.

And though we say it often, it bears repeating: Public records and open meetings laws may be most often pursued by the press, but the laws are there for the use of everyone who wants to hold government accountable. The sun shouldn’t shine from only one direction.