Editorial – Let sun shine on government at all levels

Published 7:51 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2024

In this, another annual observance of Sunshine Week, we’re reminded of the words of Bill Moyers — that “secrecy is the freedom tyrants dream of.”

Vladimir Putin regularly lives that dream in Russia, where journalists and, for that matter, anyone who questions the dictator’s authority are routinely snuffed out. Here at home, a country built on citizens’ right to know the affairs of their governments, secrecy is protected not by violence but by consistent, mostly subtle efforts to weaken open records and open meetings laws, or by simple disregard for the laws as written, knowing the consequences are minimal.  

Sunshine Week is a national initiative begun in 2005 by the former American Society of News Editors, now the News Leaders Association, intentionally during the birth week of the philosophical Founding Father of sunshine laws, James Madison, who famously declared: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” 

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It’s important to note that sunshine laws are not merely a tool for journalists. They are available to any citizen who wishes to know more about local, state and federal governments. Public servants responsible for fielding and responding to those requests sometimes grouse about the voluminous requests from gadflies, but the inconvenience, and even the expense, which can be reasonably recouped by the responding entity, are worth it to ensure transparent government.

At their core, sunshine laws exist for the public’s benefit, the right of the citizenry to be informed transcends any public agency embarrassment or loss of “efficiency.”

As one state legislature put it, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know; the people insist on remaining informed so they may retain control over the instruments they have created.” 

Here at home, we saw the value of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act last year when the Times used it to lift the veil on developer Joe Luter IV’s plan to involve taxpayers in paying for the infrastructure in his controversial Grange at 10Main mixed-use development on the western edge of the historic district. Such was the public outcry that Luter was forced to publicly declare that he was taking taxpayer subsidies off the table prior to the Smithfield Town Council’s vote to rezone the property. Who knows how deep in taxpayers’ pockets the project would be now but for the FOIA-empowered reporting of our Stephen Faleski. 

Sunshine laws secure the public trust and therefore must remain robust. When the public trust is broken, these laws are the best hope for holding public servants accountable.