It’s Sunshine Week, in honor of your “Right to Know”.
Fittingly, we have not been blessed with an abundance of Mother Nature’s sunshine recently. It mirrors the secrecy with which many government bodies — local, state and federal — choose to conduct business.
Sunshine Week was created in 2005, and coincides with the birthday of James Madison (March 16), the nation’s fourth president and one of the crafters of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Madison was among those who championed the First Amendment to prevent the kind of tyranny colonists faced from King George III who prevented newspapers critical of him from publishing during the American Revolution.
How important is transparency in any sort of government? Well, it allows those who employ government officials to know how and where their tax dollars are being spent, how policy is being drafted and how the future is being shaped. It allows residents to know what government agencies, from police departments to school administrators, are doing to protect, serve and educate.
Taxpayers spend millions each year on government. From construction costs to salaries and pensions, it’s public money and the way it’s spent should be transparent, as should the policies drafted and adopted by those in government.
Pennsylvania has a not-so-rich history with transparency. It’s improved in recent years, yet still we see a reluctance to produce government records, whether it’s a contract signed by local supervisors or state police records related to an alleged crime.
As much as newspapers push for transparency, the ultimate driving force is the electorate — you.
Take it from Madison, who said, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Now, more than ever, transparency in government is needed. Just this week, the three Republican nominees for governor in Pa. acknowledged they will not turn over their tax records. Our president — who vowed to release his tax returns during the primary season — reneged on that promise after the election, becoming the first president in more than 40 years to not release his tax returns. As high office is increasingly a rich man’s occupation, it’s crucial for the electorate to know a candidate’s allegiances, debtors and philanthropic nature.
With Sunshine Week, we are reminded that citizens engaged in the public nature of government are our best advocates for open, transparent government.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant. As the cloudy days of winter give way to spring soon, let us not forget the need for transparency.
Chris Brady is managing editor at The Standard-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.