Government and the sunshine

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By Jim Clark

Sunshine Week has arrived once again.

No, that's not a weather report. It's the annual week where we make all people aware of their rights under open government. It started in Florida but has spread nationwide.

This year the observance starts on March 16.

Our state has two main "Sunshine Laws," one requiring open meetings and the other requiring open public records.

Through the years, exemptions to these laws, especially public records, have climbed, and it's time for legislators to go back to the original intent, which was to make everything open.

Something seems to happen to people when they are elected to public office. They suddenly think that they are the government. They forget that they work for us, all of us, and nothing should be kept secret from us.

The general public is also under the misconception, possibly fostered by some members of the media, that the public records law is there for the press. Actually, anyone can go into a county or city office and ask to inspect public documents. Government officials cannot ask you for identification, they can't ask you why you want to see it, and they have to provide it unless they can cite a specific statutory exemption.

If you want a copy of something, you can be charged, but only a reasonable fee.

The open meeting law dictates that all discussion of governmental affairs between two (or more) elected members of the same body must be done at announced meetings.

This law gets a little more complicated in a small town. In a big city, for instance, two city officials probably won't bump into each other at the grocery store. But in a smaller town, those same two might find themselves in the same restaurant at the same time.

Obviously the letter of the law is simple, but practically there are situations that arise that could technically be a violation that, really, no one cares about.

What is important, though, is that no discussion of issues or decisions on issues may take place outside of called meetings or workshops. The public must be notified when these meetings are going to take place.

You can be sure that if you go to a meeting and something is brought up that is not on the agenda, and it is quickly voted on and approved, well, someone's been talking about it away from the meeting.

The main thing is to be vigilant, and hold government officials accountable for any violations.

There are nine key words in the Gettysburg Address that all officials should remember about government: It's "of the people, by the people, for the people."

The people are the government, and they have the right to see what has been done (public records) and to see how it's done (open meetings). During this upcoming Sunshine Week, we hope all our officials keep that in mind.

STYLEBOOK SHORTS: Our continuing series in how certain things are publicized according to print style, to help those who submit news items. Today, addresses.

Spell out the location if it's not a specific address. The Williston Pioneer Sun News is on Northwest First Avenue, or it's at 28 N.W. First Ave. Notice the N.W. takes periods, as do most abbreviations in the English language. Notice also that First through Ninth are spelled out ... only use digits when it's 10 and above. Next week: Time.

WEB WANDERINGS: In keeping with today's theme, the Web site for today is www.sunshineweek.org where you can find all sorts of reference materials about open government.

Jim Clark is the editor of the Williston Pioneer Sun News. He can be reached at editor@willistonpioneer.com or at 528-3343.