Archive for Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Open government should be priority

March 19, 2008

The early leaders of our country held widely divergent views on many topics, but their writings reflect a common appreciation of the importance of the right to know. These leaders recognized that in order for the new democracy to survive, public access was essential. As James Madison wrote: "[A] people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Sunshine Week celebrates the people's right to access the records and proceedings of their government and continue a centuries-old tradition of public access in America. Some might say that the need to safeguard the public's right to be informed about their government is no longer as important today as it was to Madison and his contemporaries.

I would argue that the mandate of government agencies to be stewards of the public trust has not changed. In fact, the standard may be higher. The agencies are larger, their duties are more complex, and a vast number of lobbyists are now part of the process.

In the end, government is still responsible to the people. The public access laws give the people the means to hold government accountable for its actions. This fundamental reality continues to be as significant today as it was in the early years of our nation.

Each day, Floridians from Key West to Pensacola use the open government laws to make their communities a better place to live. They pour over government records, even draft documents, to see for themselves how their tax dollars are being spent. They also attend city council meetings, planning meetings, board of education meetings and countless other proceedings across the state.

Through these efforts they are making a difference. When Floridians want to know which programs are working and which are not, they can find out for themselves by using our strong open government laws. They don't have to rely on what bureaucrats want, or do not want, them to know.

However, while strong open government laws are important, the people are entitled to more. It is up to the government leaders to make sure that the laws intended to provide public access can be used effectively by the people.

That is why in my inaugural address on Jan. 2, 2007, I spoke of my first Executive Order establishing an Office of Open Government. The purpose of this new initiative was to ensure that state agencies follow the letter and spirit of the public access laws. I liken it to removing the door to government and replacing it with a window through which the sun was shining.

Executive Order 07-01 created the office and outlined its responsibilities to provide training and education to agency personnel on the open government laws and directed each agency to appoint an open government contact to help secure compliance with these laws. To date, 48 agencies, including 11 state universities, have established open government contacts and hundreds of agency employees have completed a training course on the requirements of these laws.

The leaders of these agencies value the accountability that is fostered by our broad access laws. As one agency secretary put it: "We must put our energy into cooperation, not controversy, competition or divisiveness. We have nothing to hide, but more importantly, we should hide nothing."

- Charlie Crist is Florida's 44th governor. Prior to becoming governor in January 2007, he served as Florida's attorney general and education commissioner.

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