In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln defined our representative democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
As we mark the beginning of Sunshine Week, it’s important to remember that a government can only be of the people, by the people and for the people if it operates with transparency and openness at all levels.
Sunshine Week is a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. It was established in March 2005 with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
News media like the Journal-World have long served as advocates of open government. But while open government is a key to newspapers’ watchdog role, openness is the public’s cause, not the media’s.
Government officials serve the public. Government records belong to the public. Given the choice between openness and secrecy, elected officials and public servants too often err on the side of the latter by withholding documents, sealing records or conducting business behind close doors. That shouldn’t be.
A couple whose home was raided by law enforcement shouldn’t have had to spend $25,000 and years of legal wrangling just to gain access to a probable cause affidavit explaining the justification for searching their home. A family whose son went missing almost 30 years ago shouldn’t still be waiting to see the police records in their son’s missing-person’s case. A University of Kansas student shouldn’t have to pay $1,800 for access to basic open records.
Yet, all of the above have happened in recent years in northeast Kansas.
Each year, legislators take steps to address such issues, including this year.
A Senate Bill, sponsored in part by Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, would establish reasonable and uniform fees for access to public records. Another Senate Bill, sponsored by Sen Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, would release police records in missing-persons cases after 25 years. Both bills have been approved in committee and await legislative votes.
But not all bills advocate for openness. Legislators advanced a bill this session exempting from the Kansas Open Records Act records held by the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training — including the state’s list of registered law enforcement officers and records on officers who are fired or have complaints filed against them. Lawmakers said the bill is necessary to protect officers. But who is protecting the public’s right to know about the history of law enforcement officers serving their communities? The bill is a setback for open government.
The Journal-World will continue to serve as an advocate for open records and open government. Because government of the people, by the people and for the people can’t be conducted in the dark; you have to let the sun shine in.