It seems these days that cameras are everywhere to capture our every action.
In stores and businesses, pointing at our cars at stop lights and allowing us to record and post everything from photos of our dogs to images of police brutality.
It’s like we’ve got nowhere to hide.
Unfortunately, we don’t have cameras pointed at our elected officials when they meet in secret or when they discuss the public’s business outside of our view. No camera can stop a government body that withholds a public document or holds public records hostage, inviting an expensive and time-consuming court battle. There’s no TikTok video available to convince state lawmakers to strengthen our laws to make government more transparent or for the courts to uphold these laws.
The most vital tools we have to fight government secrecy and promote openness are our own attention to governments that seek to act against our interests, and our own diligence in holding them accountable.
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That’s what Sunshine Week is all about. Starting today and continuing throughout the week, news organizations like ours are joining with government watchdog groups and civic and legal organizations to remind citizens of the need more than ever to fight for open government.
Government secrecy deprives us of the opportunity to know how our laws are being passed and how our tax money is being spent. It deprives us of the opportunity to know whether our public officials are acting in our best interests or are using their political offices to benefit themselves and those close to them.
Secret meetings deprive us of the opportunity to witness and participate in debates over issues that directly affect our lives. The illegal withholding of public documents by government officials deprives us of the opportunity to investigate for ourselves whether government is serving us effectively, and it limits our ability to challenge their actions and hold them accountable.
The bad news is that the fight for transparency has become a Sisyphean task in recent years.
With increased demands on our lives, many of us are unable to devote the time to attend public meetings and engage our officials.
With news organizations downsizing, there are fewer local news reporters sitting at meetings calling out illegal actions and taking the time to demand and review records.
The state agency that once vigorously advocated for our right to know is now merely a quiet resource.
And as people become more concerned about personal privacy, lawmakers are passing laws and taking other actions to deprive citizens of their right to know about such matters as police disciplinary records, body and vehicle camera footage, arrests and criminal backgrounds, and government contract negotiations.
That’s all made the challenge to maintain a government that’s open and responsive much more difficult.
The good news is that there are still journalists on the ground who are committed to open government and who are still fighting for access on the citizens’ behalf.
There are still government watchdog groups like the New York Coalition for Open Government, Reinvent Albany, the Empire Center for Public Policy, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and others that are committed to open government and aggressive in their fight to preserve it.
And there are still individual citizens and groups among us who demand to see public records, who stand up at meetings and call out public officials, who take it upon themselves to fight for our rights on behalf of all of us.
Sunshine Week is the time to get reinvigorated and to recommit ourselves to a fair, responsive and open government.
The task is more daunting than ever, and it will require all of us to step in and step up. Keep the light shining on government.