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Exercise your right to know

What Other Newspapers Are Saying

Centre County resident Michelle Grove heard rumors that her local school board had purchased a farm for more than $1 million. The rumors proved to be true — not that anyone attending school board meetings would have known. That piece of the public’s business was conducted out of public view in an executive session.

Grove explained in an open government panel discussion Tuesday how she filed right-to-know requests for information that forced the expenditure into the light. Her victory, and her ongoing work to combat government secrecy, were celebrated in a virtual forum hosted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition in honor of Sunshine Week. That is the time set aside each year to recall the essential role of open government in our democracy and the laws that make it possible — for both citizens and journalists.

We celebrate our extraordinary experiment in self-rule too often with platitudes and empty gestures. Electing a representative government is only the first step. How to ensure it champions the public’s interests? Quite simply by knowing what your elected officials do with the power you accord them, be they school board members, lawmakers, executives, row officers, council people or the many who serve on low-profile but powerful boards and committees. Who do they hire and why? How do they spend taxpayer money? How do they make the critical decisions that shape the contours of our lives, be it zoning rules, school curriculum, tax rates or laws governing life, liberty and property?

Good, responsive government does not just happen. It requires vigilance and engagement by citizens like Grove and the free press, the so-called fourth branch of government, not self-anointed, but playing a vital role identified by the founders.

Sunshine Week coincides with James Madison’s birthday on March 16. A lead author of the Bill of Rights — guaranteeing among others, freedom of the press — he wrote, “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.”

Indeed.

Neither enemies of the people nor fake, members of the free press mostly are not national celebrities or partisan pundits. They are your neighbors. Reporters work long hours to bring you sports scores and school board votes. They detail community stories of loss and triumph. They keep you apprised of local business, health, crime, dining and entertainment news. And for all the times you can’t be in a courtroom or council meeting or the state Capitol, they witness, inquire and report, holding power to account. They do this in a time of upheaval in the industry, resulting in leaner resources and heightened focus on what matters most to readers. In a deluge of information unleashed by the internet, they strive to impart facts, a commodity under such threat in this era of disinformation leveraged for political ends.

Sunshine Week is always worth observing, but especially during this extraordinary year of crisis and division, when events cast such a stark spotlight on the need for truth and open, effective government.

Citizens waited most of 2020 in vain for a coordinated, honest federal response to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Here in Pennsylvania, clear answers were slow in coming from the Wolf administration on key questions about coronavirus case data and the decision-making behind nursing home COVID protocols and business shutdown orders.

As we emerge from this harrowing chapter, there is much hard-earned wisdom to hold close, the value of truth and transparent government, especially. Seek it, defend it, celebrate it, always. Without it, as we have seen and as Madison knew, we risk tragedy and farce.

— Erie Times News

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