March 19, 2014 - Despite the still colder than normal temperatures, this week you may see journalists across this far and wide land dancing jigs in the streets and in front of governmental buildings (kilts are optional). This seemingly pointless jubilation can only mean one thing:
A. Free drinks at the pub down the street.
B. Free lunch at the diner across the street.
C. Free access to government records.
D. All of the above.
Take your pick, but the answer is C -- though D would work just fine.
* * *
This week is National Sunshine Week and this is a week we reporter-types shine the light of openness on government. We of the media implore government agents, both elected and appointed, to be transparent in their actions. We encourage citizens to take off their rose-colored glasses and look at their government in nonpartisan ways. Both Democrat and Republican leaders have taken their constituents quite literally to the bank. Neither party has dominion over virtue. Both have produced some corrupt individuals.
If you have watched the shenanigans in Washington, DC., Detroit, and even here, locally you know "The People" need more transparent government. Not less openness. This goes for school boards, too.
I've been to many a public meeting in the past 30 years and the single, biggest change which upset me came first from local schools . . . at their meetings (to make them shorter) they started approving "consent agenda items." These are items everybody on the board knows about and in an open meeting they all vote "yes" to approve. Most folks in the audience are left to guess what is in the consent agendas.
It didn't take long before every elected board started using them. I hate consent agenda items -- there may be nothing in there controversial or sneaky. I just don't like them on principle.
And, speaking of principle . . .
I know all our elected boards employ, or have on retainer, attorneys to guide them away from potential lawsuits and to make sure the letter of the laws are followed, but I always wondered, "Do attorneys and electeds only follow the letter of the law, or do they also act in the spirit of the law?"
There's been an effort afoot to "save" local governments money by allowing them to publish public notices on the internet instead of in a print newspaper. What a bad idea and here's why.
Things "on-line" can change or disappear real easy-like and nobody would be the wiser. This type of nefarious action can be taken not only by government-types but also by hackers.
Think about it. If the Defense Department can be hacked, so can The City of the Village of Clarkston! On the other hand, newspapers provide citizens with an independent, authentic and permanent record of legal actions taken by government and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that taxpayer rights are protected.
Luckily for everybody in the mitten state, public notices are still to be placed in print newspapers. Public notices are published on-line only if there is not a newspaper of general circulation to use.
Public notices help residents keep tab on their local government's actions. Did you know they are 'sposed to publish any changes made to any ordinance (law)? Yep, it's true.
When public notices are published in one newspaper, like the one you're reading, residents can go there and research what their government officials have done. From the immediate past, all the way back to our first issues we have copies of public notices. When local governments bounce their notices from one publication to the other because they "don't like that paper anymore," it makes it real difficult for folks to research what their officials do. In effect, it makes government less transparent. Folks, it's not about cost. Is freedom free?
* * *
Back when I was on the beat, I never had to invoke the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). If I had a question, I'd ask and then be given the information. If I ever had to use it, I would automatically suspect somebody was trying to hide something. What is the Michigan Freedom of Information Act?
In the spirit of Sunshine week, here is the Michigan law in regards to public records"
" . . . a person may inspect or receive copies of public documents maintained by a public body unless specifically exempted from disclosure by law.
"However, prisoners may not use the Act to obtain information. A public body may charge a fee for providing copies of records (which means they may not charge, also)
"Requests for records must be made in writing and a response must be given within five business days unless there are circumstances that make it difficult to obtain the record. In those circumstances, an additional 10 business days are allowed. The public body must respond to the request by either granting it or issuing a written notice explaining the reasons for denial."
* * *
What do you think of transparency locally? Can your government be more open? What have been your experiences? Let me know!
Don is Assistant Publisher for Sherman Publications, Inc. He has worked for the company since 1985. He has won numerous awards for column, editorial and feature writing as well as for photography. He has two, sons Shamus and Sean and resides in the area. To read archived copies of his columns, click on his name, just under his picture up top . . . He can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org