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Desert Rattling: Happy Sunshine Week!

Posted: Wednesday, Mar 20th, 2013

The date March 16 doesn’t jump out at most Americans who glance at their calendars, since it’s not a legal holiday.

But it’s an important day nonetheless.

It was on that day in 1751 that James Madison came into this world, and to honor his legacy, newsrooms across the country are working to promote the values that he enshrined in our Constitution.

Since 2005, we’ve set aside a full week every March to remind citizens that public records are, as the term suggests, a matter of public record.

At its core, Sunshine Week is rooted in the Madisonian idea that a truly representative form of government can only succeed if people arm themselves with the power of knowledge.

Madison believed that the unfettered flow of information would benefit society as a whole, and he took a special interest in the role that newspapers could play in leveling any imbalances between government entities and citizens.

“The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable,” he said in his original draft of the First Amendment.

Those exact words never made it into the ratified version of the law, but Thomas Jefferson wholly embraced them, as well.

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press,” he said in 1786.

Reporters owe their very livelihoods to Madison, but Americans as a whole have our fourth president to thank for many of the everyday freedoms that we often take for granted.

Sunshine Week aims to shed some light on one of those overlooked freedoms: the right to view government records.

In this day and age, citizens who understand their rights can use them to help reduce government waste and inefficiency, or to promote greater transparency of government affairs.

But they can only succeed if government employees share their awareness.

Durango Herald reporter Emery Cowan recently put local officials across the state to the test when she asked them for copies of their county managers’ employment contracts.

The documents are a matter of public record under the Colorado Open Records Act. Yet many of the government employees she spoke with said they weren’t sure that the documents were open to the public. Some of them even began to pepper her with questions.

“Can I ask what this is regarding? Who are you with? What do you need? Could you explain it?” one El Paso County official asked her.

Others said they had to check with their county attorneys or human resource departments before they could fulfill her request, she reported.

Any other reporter who’s been in the newsroom for a while — including yours truly — can regale you with similar stories.

They’ll also tell you that under the law, you as a citizen have the right to view any government documents that are classified as “public records,” including business permits, bids or contracts for public works projects and court case files.

You don’t even have to identify yourself, or tell an inquiring government official why you want to review a “public record.”

Based on my past experiences in Nevada, I found that elected officials are usually happy to comply with a public-records request. Unfortunately, though, many of their subordinates were not.

I don’t believe that these lower-level employees acted out of malice; in most cases, they just weren’t familiar with a state’s laws. But ultimately, ignorance is no excuse for their actions.

Perhaps government offices should make a habit of bringing their employees up to speed on the law. And while they’re at it, they could give them a refresher course on Madison, who once had this to say:

“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."

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