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Our View / Sunshine Week: Newspapers shine lights, illuminate the truth

Nate Beeler/Cagle Cartoons

Here's one example: The state of Minnesota for decades required meetings of government bodies be held in public. Good, no governing in secret. But also bad, the Legislature exempted itself from the statute. So last legislative session, the News Tribune and others rallied behind a bill to subject the Legislature to the same Minnesota Data Practices Act requirements and open-meeting laws as all other elected officials in the state.

Here's another example: In July, administrators in Duluth City Hall enacted a policy for handling public-information requests; only they included a flat $35-per-hour fee to produce requested records — and a one-size-fits-all fee like that conflicts with state law. The News Tribune, the Minnesota Newspaper Association legal counsel, and others quickly called out our city leaders, and Chief Administrative Officer Dave Montgomery soon acknowledged, "We fumbled the ball."

Here's just one more: In December, with troubling and disturbing revelations and allegations flowing forth about sexual misconduct and sexual impropriety, newspapers explained to the public how procedures, practices, and laws were in place at the federal level and even here in Minnesota not to root out the wrongdoing of elected and government leaders but to protect them when they're accused of bad behavior. The push for reform strengthened.

Those are just three examples, and just from this past year — with plenty more out there, unfortunately — of the critical need for the media and for all of us to hold our elected leaders accountable and to be vigilant about ensuring that those who govern act responsibly and in accordance with law.

That need and that assurance are at the heart of Sunshine Week this week, an annual national observance in the name of protecting democracy by ensuring government transparency. So that's sunshine, as in shining a light to illuminate the truth.

"Some arguments for withholding information are well-meaning. Other arguments should raise eyebrows," former Red Wing, Minn., Republican Eagle Editor Jim Pumarlo wrote in a commentary last week for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. "Reminding citizens and public officials about the public's right of access to government information is the focus."

"Unfortunately," wrote Bonnie Page of Portland, Ore., a general counsel for an archiving firm, also in a column last week, "public access to meetings and records are a problem across the country. Experts say that public access to records is worse now than it was four years ago. Today, public officials are more likely to deny record requests, according to nearly half of the media experts surveyed. ... More than one-third of survey respondents (38 percent) said they were denied records more frequently at all levels of government."

As Pumarlo pointed out, most public officials and elected leaders are open and forthcoming, recognizing the importance of sharing information, good and bad, in compliance with the law. But laws can confuse, mistakes can be made, and, sometimes, there's a desire for secrecy that shortchanges all of us.

The annual Sunshine Week remains relevant — so truth is always illuminated and so there aren't so many examples of secrecy and wrongdoing.