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Sunshine laws more important than ever

Another year has come and gone, and another Sunshine Week is upon us. Launched 14 years ago by the American Society of News Editors, the annual observance is timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, considered the father of the Constitution and a staunch advocate for the Bill of Rights.

In that spirit, we celebrate the continuing role that open-government laws play in helping us inform the public, and the importance of public records and public meetings in a functioning democratic government. At a time when news organizations are struggling economically and under attack by public officials who don’t like being held accountable, the ability of citizens to know what their government is up to is more vital than ever.

In some years, we’ve noted efforts this newspaper made to obtain public records, sometimes against the wishes of the government agencies responsible for them, that led to news stories that kept our readers informed. We had one instance in the past year when we had to appeal to the District Attorney’s Office to obtain a recording of a jail phone call. In another case, we had to pay $248 to the county for staff time spent compiling salary data for public employees. But for the most part, records we asked for were provided without argument — and that’s a good sign.

Probably the highest-profile record we obtained in 2018 was the body-camera video of a police shooting that took the life of a mentally ill man. We requested the video and posted it on our website so readers could see for themselves what transpired in the encounter between two Eagle Point police officers and Matthew Thayer Graves.

When a grand jury ruled that the officers’ actions were justified in a 5-2 vote, we requested and obtained the transcript of the grand jury’s deliberations so the public could better understand the reasoning behind the decision. Regardless of your opinion about that case, it was a better informed opinion as a result of that information.

It is to the credit of the agencies involved that the video and the transcript were made available to our news staff without a fight. But it is important not to become complacent about public records and public meetings laws, because government officials frequently seek to limit public access to information, and it is up to news organizations and the general public to push back when that happens.

Because sunshine laws don’t exist just for the benefit of journalists. They exist to benefit the public. We act on your behalf to keep you informed, but individual citizens actually file more records requests than reporters do, and more members of the public attend government meetings, too.

That’s why it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure lawmakers don’t restrict access to information, and work to keep the business of government happening in the light of day, not behind closed doors.