March 15-21 is National Sunshine Week. For non-journalists, it may sound like the perfect time, especially in Maine, to build awareness of the restorative powers of the sun, since it’s been about six months since we’ve felt its warmth and we’re all a little Vitamin D deprived. But Sunshine Week has a more metaphorical meaning. It’s when we celebrate the constitutional rights of the American people to know what’s happening in their government.

Organized by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bloomberg, The Gridiron Club and Foundation, the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and media outlets around the nation are running stories regarding the importance of open government. In Maine, there have been relatively few flagrant violations of the right-to-know law in recent years. News outlets, including this one, have regularly filed freedom-of-information requests when government sources clam up and refuse to hand over documents. And, for the most part, officials respond with the requested information pretty quickly. However, that’s not always the case. Some cases go to court. The federal Freedom of Information Act (Maine also has an equivalent Freedom of Access Act) provides legal grounds for reporters to obtain the information they’re seeking.

The laws weren’t written just to accommodate reporters, however. While journalists make up the bulk of requests, the laws are written to protect the general public’s right to know. We in the news business find it disturbing when a member of the public gets stonewalled at town hall while seeking information. These rebuffed citizens then come to us, thinking we’ll have a better chance of getting information. So, note to town hall employees, reporters and residents should be treated similarly since the law protects everyone.

Public officials, on the other hand, get unduly criticized for not knowing the law. Truth be told, these officials have a lot to juggle since the advent of the Internet. Getting up to speed on the right-to-know law is part of each new official’s orientation. Most enlightening for newcomers is when they’re told that their emails are fodder for public review. Anything they write concerning official business – even on their personal accounts – can be viewed by the public.

Fortunately, many of our more experienced local officials are savvy of the law. One town manager, for example, includes the following paragraph to the bottom of each email he writes: “NOTICE: Under Maine’s Freedom of Access (“Right to Know”) law, documents – including emails – in the possession of public officials about town business are considered public records. This means if anyone asks to see it, we are required to provide it. There are very few exceptions. We welcome citizen comments and want to hear from our constituents, but please keep in mind that what you write in an email is not private and will be made available to any interested party.”

But Sunshine Week isn’t just about the public aspects of official email. It’s about opening those backroom doors and reminding town and school leaders they need to conduct business out in the open. And, unfortunately, the need for reminders is constant. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, the Gorham Town Council held an unpublicized meeting with potential bidders of the Gorham Public Safety Building construction project. Holding meetings on a holiday with no prior notice is antithetical to good governance, especially a meeting with bidders on a multi-million-dollar public project. Gorham officials said they held it on a holiday since the company officials were available that day. We’re not sure what to make of their explanation, but that kind of backroom dealing should alarm Gorham voters.

Nearly every town at some point has struggled to follow the law. Reporters see this first hand, and do stories exposing it. A common violation occurs when a gavel falls and the council’s conversation keeps running.

To be sure, there are times when public business shouldn’t be open to the public and privacy needs to be considered. An example is when a company official contacts a town official indicating interest in relocating to the town. If that sort of correspondence were made public, all those with available property would hike their asking prices. So there are clearly times when government business should be kept private, but those instances are few and far between.

Yet, just as sunshine can restore health and kill germs, getting backroom deals out into the open cleanses and disinfects the whole works.

–John Balentine, managing editor

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