Welcome home

A couple weeks ago Vicky McKinley of Westbrook got to hear the word she’d been waiting to hear for more than a year – “Dismissed.”

Hearing the word meant that her husband, Staff Sgt. Cliff McKinley, was finally home. Cliff McKinley was one of hundreds of members of Maine’s 133rd Engineering Battalion to return home a couple weeks ago. Expectant crowds greeted the soldiers in homecoming celebrations across the state, including one here in Westbrook.

It’s been a long year for the soldiers in the battalion and their families. They’ve been separated from their loved ones by thousands of miles.

The soldiers have been living at a camp in a foreign country. They’ve endured Iraq’s scorching heat, performed hard work and seen things no one should have to see, like a mess tent bombing that took the lives of their fellow soldiers – one of the worst attacks on U.S soldiers of the war.

Their families have endured their absences. Husbands and wives have been raising families without the assistance of their spouses. They’ve had to worry about the safety of their loved one every time they hear news of another attack.

That time is finally over for most of the battalion. (Some troops, including Westbrook’s Caleb Barrieau, had to stay behind for a few extra weeks to pack equipment.) To all the members of Maine’s 133rd, welcome home.

As you return this spring to your families and civilian lives, know that your work in Iraq – building schools, health clinics and roads – and your service to this country is appreciated.

Apathy threatens open government

This is sunshine week in U.S. journalism.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean newspapers and broadcasters will be delivering weather reports of warm temperatures and sunny skies; it means we’ll be working to raise awareness about the importance of open government and the places it is threatened.

Although it might sound trite, it can’t be said enough: The freedom to obtain information about how government is being run is a fundamental part of any healthy democracy. And, it is a cornerstone of this one.

“A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or 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 knowledge gives,” James Madison wrote to W.T. Barry, the lieutenant governor of Kentucky, in 1822.

As a newspaper, we will continue to watch government year-round. We will raise objections when we feel information that should be public is being kept secret, and we will report on what we believe to be violations of the public’s right to know.

However, open government also requires that government officials always keep its importance in mind and, more importantly, that members of the public demand that their government officials give them the information that is rightfully theirs.

Public apathy is one of the greatest threats to open government today. Government officials can keep information secret only when too few people fail to demand it from them.

It seems the public today often has little interest in the way its government is run, until it affects them directly. Although the presidential election this past fall drew some of the largest voting numbers in years, most elections, especially local ones, are decided by a fraction of the public.

We saw an example of that in Gorham last week. A paltry 5 percent of registered voters cast ballots on the fate of the Shaw School. Even though the weather was bad in the afternoon, the turnout should have been much higher.

One woman, who declined to give her name, told us she voted against it because she hadn’t heard anything about it until the day of the election, despite the fact that the media had been reporting on it for months.

More people will likely care when the $7 million project affects their tax bills. Many people probably would have cared if the building had been torn down. With the low voter turnout, that could have happened easily because the election was decided by fewer than 40 votes.

For open government to work, members of the public have to let government officials know that they want to know.

Brendan Moran, editor