We need sunshine — in more ways than onePublished 8:50am Thursday, March 13, 2014
In the midst of this — I’ll use the word “interesting” — winter, no one would be shocked if I said we needed more sunshine. They might be surprised, however, to know I’m not talking about the weather.
Next week, March 16-22, marks National Sunshine Week. Started in Florida in 2002, it is “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” according to the organization. “… Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.”
It is hard to argue that this isn’t vitally important, but maybe some real-world examples can help illustrate how critical public information can truly be. Here are a few from sunshineweek.org:
“Using Kentucky’s Open Records Act, the Lexington Herald-Leader discovered that the chief executive of two state agencies that lend money to college students had spent more than $50,000 on out-of-state trips, often exceeding the daily per diem limits and treating guests to $100-plus a person meals.
“Using data gathered from a Freedom of Information Act request, the Asbury Park Press reported that the federal government paid its civilian work force $105 billion in salaries in 2011 — then gave them another $439 million in bonuses.
“The Ann Arbor News used the state’s FOIA to track the wages of police and firefighters, discovering that they often earn far more than their base salaries. One police officer collected $126,247 — including $39,327 in overtime, $20,000 in paid time off and sick pay and $2,134 in various allowances. An assistant fire chief who retired in mid-November took home $75,797 in regular pay, $17,000 in paid time off and sick pay, $8,309 in allowances, $10,325 in overtime and cased in comp time, and $101,463 in severance.”
Some examples hit much closer to home. The recent controversy within the Niles Community Schools that resulted in the resignation of Superintendent Richard Weigel offers a perfect illustration.
Although no one knows exactly what occurred in this divorce that some wished would have just been kept quiet, the public knows more than it would have thanks to the Sunshine Laws and a FOIA request from the Niles Daily Star and Leader Publications.
The district initially declined to offer any information about the separation or what it was costing the taxpayers. The public documents showed that Weigel would be paid a year’s salary of $115,000, receive regular pay as a consultant for the three months and received a glowing letter of recommendation from the same group that cited difference of opinions on leadership and vision as reasons they could no longer coexist.
This certainly raises more questions and provides information that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.
Think the Sunshine Laws weren’t important? The document itself proves otherwise, stating that, “While the Parties agree that this Separation Agreement and Release is considered confidential and the Parties will maintain confidentiality to the extent allowed by law, the Parties further understand and agree that this Agreement may be subject to disclosure under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.”
Sunshine Week may have started with the news media, but it has since grown to include civic organizations, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others willing to stand up and fight for the public’s right to know.
The State of Michigan has solid laws when it comes to open government and public records but more can certainly be done to let the light in.
Our legislators need to continue to fight for their constituents’ right to know how their money is spent and why decisions are made. The state must do a better job of educating elected officials and those who work in offices where the Sunshine Laws apply. And those individuals themselves have to understand that the public’s rights are not negotiable or tied to how this may reflect on an individual or entity.
Openness and transparency are fundamental to the foundation of our democracy. The idea that the few should decide the information needed by the many is flawed and contrary to every principle our nation was built on.
The entire initiative centers on a simple concept: “Open government is good government.” For that, we need all the proverbial “sunshine” we can get, even if it is the middle of winter.
Michael Caldwell is the publisher of Leader Publications LLC. He can be reached at (269) 687-7700 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.