Sunshine Week is being celebrated this week. The recognition is marked by journalists across America each year, but should also be revered by the gift that it is to all Americans, whether they realize it or not.
Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors in 2005. It was a broadened initiative that first started in 2002 in Florida. The week is designed to underscore the importance of all governments acting in the spirit in which they were formed: to conduct the public’s business openly and with applause, criticism or input from the people they work for.
Before Sunshine laws were in place, government entities would often times retire into “executive sessions” for almost any issue where members of the groups would hold discussions before moving into the public portion of the meeting for a vote. Reporters would have to push their way into executive sessions, because they knew that is where news was actually happening.
Over time, more and more open meetings laws were implemented in states across the country. In our state, the Alabama Open Meetings Act replaced the old “Sunshine Law,” and provides citizens with greater access to state and local government. The law guarantees that Alabama’s citizens have open access to agencies, boards, commissions and other government bodies which conduct the people’s business.
The current pieces of open meeting legislation in Alabama were passed in 2005 and 2015. The issue is brought up during most legislative sessions, and your Daily Mountain Eagle is always involved in the discussion with publisher James Phillips spending time in Montgomery, urging the Walker County delegation to always support open meetings, which they do.
Some matters are still off the record. Executive sessions are allowed to privately discuss pending litigation, matters that unfairly affect project costs or reveal certain personnel information, for example. But in Alabama and across America, citizens can be sure public business is conducted fairly and legally. That is something that can be taken for granted. The Daiy Mountain Eagle, which tracks government operations daily, has a great appreciation for open meetings.
In the last week, we’ve shared information from government meetings the public would not have been privy to otherwise. A public relations firm hired by a particular group might send out two paragraphs on a three-hour meeting that doesn’t mention garbage rates could be increased by 30 percent. The newspaper has a responsibility to provide that information to area citizens.
The DME has also sent letters this week to municipal officials to be sure they know it is a must that they contact us when meetings are changed, once we register with them. We will be checking in with other local municipalities to make sure this is carried out, although most local governments have been in compliance and helpful.
Politicians like to talk transparency, but community newspapers across America make sure there is transparency in government. We will continue to do that. We will continue to shine the light.