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Sunday, March 13, 2011

All fired up over right to know

Telegraph Editorial

Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, a time when the media and open-government advocates across the country mark the importance of the public’s right to know what their government is doing.

It’s also a good time to reflect on whether state governments are acting in a way that is consistent with the preamble to our own state’s Right-to-Know Law: “Openness in the conduct of public business is essential to a democratic society.”

Unfortunately, based on some recent developments, how the public defines “openness” appears to be at odds with governors and lawmakers in statehouses around the nation.

Case in point: Utah.

Last Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill into law that makes significant changes to the state’s open records law – and not for the better.

The new law exempts voice mails, instant messages and text messages; places a heavier financial burden on citizens seeking records, and permits government officials to withhold documents if they can show they might be subject to litigation.

The bill-signing prompted a protest by more than 200 people inside the capitol building, the establishment of the Utah Citizens FOI Network and a stinging editorial rebuke in The Salt Lake Tribune that opens with: “Gov. Gary Herbert has sold his political soul, and sold out his constituents, by signing a dreadful bill that will eviscerate the state’s prime open government law.”

Meanwhile, an Associated Press 50-state survey released last week found a mixed bag of advances and retreats as many state legislatures move to update their open government laws in keeping with the Internet Age.

In doing so, however, some legislatures chose to exempt electronic messages – much like Utah did – even though the same information on a piece of paper might have been subject to disclosure under the original law.

Still, the AP survey also found some success stories: Alabama Budget Committee meetings are now streamed live over the Internet. Oklahoma conference committees now no longer meet behind closed doors. And Indiana and New Hampshire (Transparent NH) have new websites that list detailed financial information.

This week, as explained in the accompanying column by Editorial Page Editor Nick Pappas, The Telegraph plans to publish a number of stories related to open government or based on access to public documents. As your read them, keep in mind that few would have been possible without our nation’s commitment to the principles of open government.

Or, in the more eloquent words of James Madison, our fourth president and author of the First Amendment: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm them selves with the power which knowledge gives.”