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It’s your right, it’s your business

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by Jim Zachary
Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. regional editor and The Valdosta Daily Times editor

 Sunshine Week, March 12-18, 2017, is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.
 The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state’s public records law. FSNE estimates that some 300 exemptions to open government laws were defeated in the legislative sessions that followed its three Sunshine Sundays, because of the increased public and legislative awareness that resulted from the Sunshine Sunday reports and commentary.
 Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.
 Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.

Every action of government is your business.

Every document held in government halls is your piece of paper.

Every penny spent by government is your money.

From the courthouse to the statehouse to the White House, government belongs to the governed and not the governing.

You have the right to know what the governing are up to, always.

We are self-governed.

The only way the public, and the press, can hold government accountable is by having unfettered access to its deliberations and the documents it holds.

Transparency is not liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.

The media champions open government in its traditional role as the Fourth Estate, knowing that independent checks and balances are critical to our liberty.

When city council, county commission or the board of education brokers a deal behind closed doors and conceals documents containing important information the public wants and needs to know our freedoms are compromised.

Local government has the biggest impact in our lives on a day-to-day basis.

Whether it is in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, business taxes, state-shared dollars or federal grants, loans and funding, local government is 100 percent taxpayer funded. The decisions being made, the monies being spent and the records being kept by city hall, the county commission, the board of education or the hospital authority affect us all, and when government is allowed to operate behind closed doors, it grows out of control, is not responsive to the public and subject to corruption.

Elected officials — from the school board member to the President of the United States, must remember they answer to the people, not to professional government bureaucrats, not to government lawyers and not to their elevated campaign advisers

It may be true the public has lost a lot of confidence in the national media, but imagine a government run amuck without media watchdogs holding it in check.

Even Thomas Jefferson, who battled with the press, at times excoriating newspapers in his letters, understood that a free press with unfettered access was essential to the health of democracy.

Jefferson would grow irritated with newspapers, even writing, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” but he is also the man who famously wrote in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787, “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

When you ask to see the county’s operating budget or challenge whether city council has the right to go into a closed session, remember it’s your right. It’s your business.

 

Jim Zachary is the regional editor of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. for Georgia and Florida newspapers and the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times. He is also the director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, a member of the board of directors of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and vice-chair of the Red & Black newspaper serving the University of Georgia. He can be contacted at jim.zachary@gaflnews.com.

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