Sunshine Week: Putting the public in public information

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The weather may be warmer, but last week’s Sunshine Week came and went with a fraction of the attention paid to a single temperate day. Sunshine Week is a time to trumpet the importance of transparency in government. But this year, that trumpet was hard to hear.

There were some highlights that I should mention:

The city of Iowa City and Johnson County received “Sunny Awards” from a national group for making public information easily available on their websites.

The Sunshine Review, a national non-profit promoting government transparency, also honored Davenport, Scott County, the Sioux City Community School District and West Des Moines Community Schools.

The Iowa Board of Regents last week named the members of a new Transparency Task Force, which will advise them about best practices for making information accessible and handling public information requests.

The Des Moines Register ran an interesting series about how Iowa’s 2-year-old “shall issue” concealed-weapons permit law is panning out.

It took months for that newspaper to collect and analyze copies of denied applications for permits to carry weapons. Two county sheriffs said they’d destroyed the public documents — one said because he didn’t need the record and another because he said he didn’t want to “be responsible” for it, according to the Register’s account.

I hope there were other Sunshiney items worth mentioning. If you know of one, please drop me a line.

Of course, it’s not as if journalists wait until mid-March to peek into the dusty halls of government. Good reporters use their (and your) rights under the Freedom of Information Act all the time. Earlier this year, Gazette sports reporter Scott Dochterman used the right to public information to take a closer look at the University of Iowa Athletics Department’s books.

That same month, Gazette reporter Gregg Hennigan sifted through hundreds of emails between Iowa City school district and area city officials just to find out if there had been any behind-the-scenes dealings in crafting the district’s contentious diversity policy. The answer: Not really, at least as far as the record shows.

Collecting and analyzing those public records took a lot of time, but it was hardly a fool’s errand. It’s just as important to know, and to note it, when public bodies handle the public’s business responsibly and openly as it is when they don’t.

Sunshine Week isn’t about playing gotcha. It’s a reminder that it’s not enough to gripe about “those clowns” in — take your pick — the courthouse, the county administration building, the legislature or on Capitol Hill. We’ve got rights and responsibilities as citizens in an open society. We’ve got to pay attention.

Public business should be conducted in the light of day — that idea’s fundamental to the very structure of this nation. We have to play our part.

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