Sunshine week spotlights transparency

REGION — The Americans Society of News Editors initiated the first Sunshine Week in March 2005, and it coincides with the birthday of James Madison, an author of the Bill of Rights, which guarantees press freedoms in the U.S. This year, the week is being observed from March 10 through March 16.

While all 50 states have some sort of open-records law, the number of small newspapers in the country has declined precipitately over the past 15 years. Because of the closure of many newspapers, there are now 1,400 fewer cities in the country that have no newspaper, and are therefore without an advocate to report on public officials. On the positive side of the issue, open-records laws are available to all members of the public and, in many cases, are becoming stronger over time.

The Pennsylvania open records law, now called the Sunshine Act, was first passed in 1987. It was expanded in 1998 and again in 2008. According to Ballotpedia (www.bit.ly/paright2know), “Prior to 2008, the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act was widely regarded as one of the worst in the country, partly because the pre-2008 law presumed that government records were not public, unless someone who wanted the record could establish otherwise. A law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Ed Rendell ‘flipped the presumption.’ This new law went into full effect on January 1, 2009 and it states, in sharp distinction to the previous law, that all documents will be presumed to be open to the public unless the agency holding them can prove otherwise.”

Advocates say it’s now time to expand it once again, and there is disagreement about whether several issues, including whether volunteer emergency organizations such as volunteer fire companies, should be subject to the provisions of the Sunshine Act.

 In New York, the open-records law is called the the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). It’s actually a series of laws first passed in 1974, then changed significantly in 1977, and updated in 1982, 2005 and 2008.

The intent of the legislation was spelled out by the authors. “The legislature hereby finds that a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions. The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government.

“As state and local government services increase and public problems become more sophisticated and complex and therefore harder to solve, and with the resultant increase in revenues and expenditures, it is incumbent upon the state and its localities to extend public accountability wherever and whenever feasible.”

 

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