Chris Quinn: I wish Sunshine Week could evolve into an annual reminder of what government should be

By Chris Quinn, The Plain Dealer Sunshine Week concluded over the weekend, closing out a week of stories in the media about crumbling access to public records. I suspect most people skip over these stories, seeing the pieces not so much as public affairs reporting but as the annual whining of the media about its eternal battles with government.

Sadly, we in the media somehow have allowed this debate to be framed as the quarreling of two entities, the press and government, rather than a debate about how we choose to govern ourselves. We have let the framers of the debate portray the government as corporeal, as a functioning organism that is somehow apart from us.

I wish Sunshine Week could become an annual reminder that government is not independent of us. It is us. Remember what Lincoln said. Of the people. By the people. For the people. We send people to city halls, Columbus and Washington not to rule over us but to carry out our wishes, to provide the services that we as a community have determined we should provide to each other. Records created in pursuit of these goals do not belong to elected leaders. They are ours -- of us, by us and for us.

Imagine having a meeting in your household in which you elected to prohibit all family members from looking through your front window out on to whatever is happening on your street. Preposterous, right? That's what happens when our representatives vote to close off portions of public records. They are shuttering the windows through which we can see and assess the services we provide each other.

In one of those Sunshine Week pieces I mentioned earlier, Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, noted last week that the original public records law, passed in 1963, was two paragraphs long and contained few exceptions. Today, he noted, the law runs for 10 pages, and state code has at least 129 exemptions.

That's 129 times that our state legislators -- the people who are "of us" -- have closed windows through which we can review how we operate. The Ohio Supreme Court has closed even more windows with odd rulings, like one that lets government withhold records if requests are "overly broad." What that means is open to wide interpretation, and believe me, government interprets it widely, keeping secret no end of public information.

The records law in Ohio has become so complicated that it takes a good book to figure it out. That book, "Access with Attitude," by lawyer Dave Marburger and Kent State University Professor Karl Idsvoog, is the ideal antidote to secrecy and would be great reading for high school civics classes, where we might train future generations about their right to information.

The book is on the bookshelves of many a newsroom, as we in local news organizations do end up being the most frequent wagers of war on the public records front. Our founding fathers, in their infinite wisdom, institutionalized the notion of a free press, recognizing that the republic would not long survive without a protected entity independent of government to demand transparency of those we elect to represent us.

News organizations regularly must resort to lawsuits or threats of lawsuits to persuade elected leaders to obey laws about access. That's part of our duty in this community, one we perform proudly. Because we perform it so regularly, though, people have come to perceive that the records law is for the media, that Sunshine Week is about the media.

What Sunshine Week should be is a time to assess who we wish to be: people who govern ourselves with transparency and openness, or people who are governed by leaders who we allow to shutter our windows on the public services we pay taxes to fund.

Our windows keep closing. Every legislative sessions brings more proposals to close off parts of the public record.  If you think that transparency is the best way to guarantee honesty among those we elect, then the next time a candidate for Congress or the state Legislature is courting you for your vote, ask them to open some of those windows they have been so busy shuttering.

Tell them to let the sun shine in.