The importance of Sunshine Week

Published 7:43 pm Thursday, March 14, 2019

This week is known as Sunshine Week, a national initiative meant to inform the public about the importance of open government. It’s a week that started in 2005 and is sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The week is based around the Freedom of Information Act, which protects the public’s right to request records from any federal agency. Basically, FOIA allows citizens to be their own watchdog, a role that the media typically assumes in communities.

In today’s political climate — regardless of who you support or where you live — open government is more important than ever.

According to a 2018 Associated Press story, the federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records more often last year than at any point in the last decade. The calculations in that story covered the first eight months of President Donald Trump’s campaign.

According to the AP, people who asked for documents received censored files or nothing in 78 percent of requests. In half of those cases, the government said it could not find information related to the request. That’s bad news for the public at large, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is in the White House.

This year for Sunshine Week the Associated Press filed open record requests related to roughly 20 recent use-of-force incidents in 12 states. Through its FOIA requests, the AP did not receive one new piece of video. The investigation found that police departments routinely withheld video taken by body-worn and dashboard mounted cameras when officers are involved in shootings and other uses of force. According to the AP, some departments withheld the video footage even after investigations were complete.

That’s troubling news for taxpayers, who are asked to brunt the cost of body cameras for officers, and in most cases, should be allowed to review video of any incident.

Of course, problems nationally aren’t always problems locally. Most local entities that operate with taxpayer funding have answered our FOIA requests in a timely way and have been extremely open.  Local newspapers regularly file FOIA requests as a way to inform taxpayers, and in our dealings, everyone from the LaGrange Police Department and city government agencies to the Troup County School System have complied with each of those and been extremely transparent about their business. We’d argue that the LPD is one of the most transparent police departments you’ll find.

From the superintendent search to performance reviews, FOIA requests have been an important part of the work we’ve done at The LaGrange Daily News over the last year, and they’ll remain an integral part of our role as a media watchdog in this community.

As citizens, remember you have the right to know what your local governing bodies are doing. As we’ve written before, transparency in government is always the best policy.