Archive for Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Openness vital in a democracy

Don’t care about openness in government? Don’t get hot and bothered when public officials do public business in secret?

March 14, 2007

Don't care about openness in government? Don't get hot and bothered when public officials do public business in secret?

You should.

Open government is essential to our democracy. It's the only way that citizens can monitor the workings of their city, county, state and national officials. It brings accountability to police departments, courts, City Halls and school boards. Our very way of life demands that our democratic institutions be open.

But many citizens see this powerful cause to be little more than an excuse for media to abuse their First Amendment rights in the rush to build circulation and ratings. Or, even worse, citizens just don't care.

And, though most public officials say they embrace open government, they often don't act like it. Rather than living by the clear and overriding policy of the Kansas Open Records Act -- that public records should be open to the public -- many officials work to find reasons to keep them closed, and to close even more in the law.

In recent years, the Legislature has eagerly turned down a number of common-sense initiatives for openness and accountability. One striking recent example: School districts in Wichita and Topeka spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax money every year to bus our children to and from school. Yet the school districts are not required by law to make public even the names of their bus drivers because the districts contract with a private company for school transportation. This is a blatant slap at public safety and accountability for tax dollars. It would be illegal in the case of any "official" school employee.

Lawmakers also have blocked attempts to require that executive sessions of public bodies be tape-recorded, and they have rejected efforts to fix the oppressive Kansas law that keeps secret probable cause affidavits in criminal arrests.

In these cases, legislators are not just missing opportunities to make state government more open and accountable. They are missing opportunities to build public trust in an era in which citizens are increasingly suspicious of "government," as if it were some alien entity.

Of course, citizens are missing opportunities, as well. Apathy doesn't work in a democracy. And until many more of us are willing to get involved, and until we tell public officials to do public business in the daylight, we will get what we deserve: too many leaders who feel that the ideal of open government is little more than a messy and inconvenient business.

Open government is not about politicians or the media. It's about you.

It is the nonpartisan issue of our time, drawing supporters across the political spectrum. Recent winners of the Sunshine Coalition's Friends of Open Government Award include such political opposites as Kansas Sens. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, and Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.

The patriots who helped create our nation knew the power of honest and open government because they faced so much venal and closed government. Thomas Jefferson said, "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their government." Patrick Henry said liberty is never secure as long as government does business in secret.

Those are two sides of the same coin of freedom.

-- Randy Brown, senior fellow in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University, is executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, now housed at the Elliott School.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.