Sunshine Week Promotes Open Government Year Round

Sunshine Week is celebrated in March.  Given declining civics instruction, duly note this observance does not mark the end of winter as predicted by various groundhogs.  Surely, it is overshadowed by St. Patrick’s Day.  As public interest observances go, it should be a red-letter date.

The Sunshine Law guarantees our access to public meetings.  We can watch our officials in action and question or comment upon their methods, decisions, and policy choices.  The current version has been in effect for 33 years now, so no one should still be test-driving it.  The law was extensively negotiated with public interest groups and associations representing public officials, to lessen misunderstandings about its meaning.  A crucial distinction is large portions are written in plain English, with definitions drawn from an ordinary dictionary, rather than a legal one.

Sunshine is built on encouraging good-faith compliance.  Enforcement across thousands of jurisdictions and tens of thousands of meetings is simply impractical.  Penalties for infractions are relatively rare.  That does not mean violations are infrequent or unintentional, or that clear meaning is not twisted pretzel-like by legalistic torture of terminology.

With public opinion polls consistently showing dropping confidence in government and elected officials, most people figure out secret deliberations are not likely to improve the situation.  But we would be guilty of applying logic to political processes that seem allergic to it.

Excellent guides produced by good government groups, local government associations, and state agencies have not dissuaded those who are convinced public controversies and tough issues are best solved outside the spotlight of public scrutiny.  Generally positive court rulings on Sunshine disputes have not quelled the urge to have secret deliberations be the default position.

Those who are caught holding secret deliberations contrary to Sunshine usually pull defenses off a standard list of stale justifications: our solicitor said it was okay; we have not had a problem with such meetings before; this is covered by an exemption; the law does not apply to this sort of ad hoc gathering.  Gossamer-thin defenses, no matter how firmly asserted.

While everyone professes to be serving in the public interest, no one produces examples where taxpayers widely approve of an end produced through secret means.  When people hear that secrecy is a requisite for candid discussion, there is good reason to be highly suspicious of the purpose and content of that conversation.

A recent case in point comes from the northwestern corner of the state.  An advisory committee was formed as part of a push to establish a regional college.  Apparently, there are deep concerns about connecting properly trained and skilled workers with available positions and ones to come open, whether through retirements, enterprise expansions, or new locations.

To warrant establishing a new college requires a substantial need to be filled through considerable effort and investment.  Understandably, those responsible for marketing the region to employers and families are not eager to have this dark cloud hovering over their blue sky pitches.

Nevertheless, it strikes as strange that a learned group would be intent on concealing their discussion.  Not only were closed door meetings held, the names of the participants were not disclosed.  This will inspire community confidence and trust how?  If a community college plan advances, presumably the folks on the advisory committee are going to be involved in more than advocacy.  Perhaps seeking seats on the governing board, contributing to the design of facilities and programs, forming partnerships, landing contracts, or serving as instructors.  Nothing nefarious in any of this, so long as it occurs in public view.

The individuals involved are volunteers.  Good for them, and a plus for the community at large.  Still, that is no assurance against self-interest or bias.  Seeing the players in action enables the public to fairly assess their interests and motivations and the quality of their input and output.  This is not a high-stakes competition for industrial or commercial location where nondisclosure is demanded.  This discussion is about reordering and repurposing existing community assets, a matter of considerable interest and significance to workers and taxpayers in the region.

People lament that campaign season is now year round, every year, exposing those serving in elected and appointed positions to unrelenting criticism.  Yes, that can be wearing on people.  The genie of caustic and despicable social media commentary is not getting shoved back into the lamp.  Unfortunately, to the extent this discourages good and reasonable people from serving, it rewards those who spew the venom.  The advances in technology cut both ways, enabling citizen access to government while providing new tools for those wishing to escape accountability for words and actions.

It is frequently contended Sunshine is broken, toothless, too easily evaded, and too lightly punished.  That overstates the situation.  Several possibilities come from comparing the large number of covered meetings with the relatively few egregious violations coming to light.  First, many officials routinely comply with the law and do not find it unreasonably complicating decisionmaking.  Second, the cost and difficulty of citizen enforcement likely means potential violations go unchallenged.  Third, there are a lot of obscure or facially insignificant meetings that lack observers, or at least ones knowledgeable in the law.

The fight for open government is full-time, and too few people are willing to shoulder the load for this extensive commitment.  Hence, we depend on the media to do the heavy lifting.  An important aspect of Sunshine Week is acknowledging the indispensable and supremely vital role of the media in reporting the news, and in providing accountability through their presence when decisions are being weighed and made.  The media are indisputably an ally of we the people.  If the media ever turned into the cheerleading squad some prominent officials demand, it would be a disastrous day for democracy.

Sunshine Week endures as an important statement of public principle and an opportunity for reminding officials and citizens how open government is supposed to function.  Celebrate by getting involved and making a difference.

David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate with the Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies at the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.