Open government important part of democracy

Published 8:02 pm Friday, March 18, 2016

By Jim Zachary

Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times.

The only way for the public to hold government accountable is for all of the actions of government to be out in the open.

That is why open government is part and parcel of democracy.

When government is allowed to operate behind closed doors, it grows out of control, is not responsive to the public and is subject to corruption.

These are some of the reasons the media, watchdog groups — and most importantly the general public — should be committed to government transparency.

Newspapers, in particular, have a long legacy of holding government accountable, and operating as the Fourth Estate. Sadly, many newspapers have abandoned that role, leaving it up to the general public to police local governments.

Any newspaper that does not defend the First Amendment and champion open government is not worth the paper it is printed on or the ink that fills its pages.

Public officials must understand the difference between the public sector and the private sector.

Men and women elected to office and people who have been appointed to boards, commissions and authorities must understand they answer to the general public.

Whether discussing finances, facilities, daily operations or public policy, all of the people’s business must be deliberated in public and not be hidden behind closed doors.

Deliberating public business in closed-door executive sessions is not only poor public service, in most cases and in most states, it is simply against the law, except for a very narrow list of reasons.

In the state of Georgia, for example, the law says:

“The General Assembly finds and declares that the strong public policy of this state is in favor of open government; that open government is essential to a free, open, and democratic society; and that public access to public records should be encouraged to foster confidence in government and so that the public can evaluate the expenditure of public funds and the efficient and proper functioning of its institutions. The General Assembly further finds and declares that there is a strong presumption that public records should be made available for public inspection without delay. This article shall be broadly construed to allow the inspection of governmental records. The exceptions set forth in this article, together with any other exception located elsewhere in the Code, shall be interpreted narrowly to exclude only those portions of records addressed by such exception” (O.C.G.A. 50-18-70).

Regardless of where you live, your state likely has similar language in its Sunshine Laws.

We encourage all elected officials to remember they answer to the people, not to professional government administrators and not to government lawyers.

Non-Elected administrators answer to them.

Government attorneys answer to them.

The public must hold elected officials accountable.

Elected officials, in turn, must hold the professional staff and the attorneys accountable.

It is clear the public is losing confidence in government at all levels.

The only way for local governments to gain that confidence back is to be open and transparent in the way they conduct the people’s business.