As this is being written, the sun is shining — finally — over the Rogue Valley, through a cloudless sky. That's a fitting harbinger for today's start of Sunshine Week 2017, the annual celebration of government transparency.
Sunshine Week was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. It's timed to coincide with the birthday of James Madison, America's fourth president, considered the father of the Constitution. Madison said the “consent of the governed” requires that the people can “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” There is no better way to arm the people with that knowledge than through laws that require government records be open to public scrutiny and government meetings open to public attendance.
At the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act dates back to 1966. Following the Watergate scandal, states also began to enact laws guaranteeing openness in government. Oregon was one of the first to do so, in 1973, and its open government laws initially were considered some of the strongest in the country.
Over the years, however, lawmakers slowly chipped away at the guarantees of openness, adding exemptions to the rules. Today, those exemptions total more than 400, and are sorely in need of an overhaul.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum appointed a task force to recommend reforms, and legislation should be forthcoming this session. Meanwhile, reporters continue to use the public records law to report on what government is doing — or not doing — on the public's behalf.
In the past year, public records requests by the Mail Tribune revealed outdated lead pipes that posed a health risk to Medford Water Commission customers.
Records requests also helped bring to light the questionable activities of a county commissioner who was acting as a recreational marijuana business consultant while voting on regulations affecting that industry.
When the Medford City Council was engaged in hiring a city manager, a public records request produced a consultant's report on candidates for the job and whether they possessed the necessary qualifications.
If it had been up to the government entities involved, those documents may not have been released, and the public might not have learned about the safety of its water supply, ethical questions about an elected official or how the City Council was selecting a chief executive for the city of Medford.
As important as public records are to the job we do as journalists, they are equally valuable to ordinary citizens. Public records requests are not restricted to news reporters. Any citizen can request documents regarding their government, and any citizen may attend public meetings of government bodies.
The public's ability to participate in their own government depends on their ability to know what that government is doing in their name and with their tax dollars. Public records and public meetings laws keep the sun shining on that government for the benefit of everyone.