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Our View: Open citizens need open government

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Taxpayers should be able to ask where their money goes and find the answer fairly quickly.
Spending is one of the biggest issues with federal, state and local governments nationwide, especially as people closely monitor their own budgets.
This past week the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press held the seventh year of Sunshine Week, held the week of James Madison’s March 16 birthday.
The week is about shining a light on government and the public’s right to know what their leaders are doing and why.
“Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger,” the organization states on its website, sunshineweek.org.
The message of Sunshine Week is important and integral in an open government. It should be carried out beyond the one week a year dedicated to highlighting your right to know.
Locally, the Auburn Journal requests information from Placer County and state government on a regular basis.
In the past we’ve asked for salary and benefits information, money spent on over-time hours, arrest and search warrants for high-profile criminal cases, crime statistics and county reimbursement forms to see how public officials are spending taxpayer money.
Some of the information was provided to us after a few phone calls, and some of the information required us to submit a California Public Records Act request to obtain it.
In some cases, despite multiple written requests, we have not received the information we sought.
The sometimes unwillingness or delay in releasing information appears prevalent in the state, too.
The United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, a nonprofit, conducted its third annual “Following the Money” report this year. In it, California received a D- on a scorecard for transparency.
According to the report, one of the reasons the state ranks low is because it is difficult for the public to easily find government spending information. The report also highlighted that in 2011 Gov. Jerry Brown closed the state’s transparency website, reportingtransparency.ca.gov, launched in 2009. We agree with the report’s opinion that the move to shutter the online site is problematic.
“The reason offered by Brown’s administration for removing the site was that they wanted users to go to the primary sources of the information,” wrote Pedro Morrillas, with CALPIRG Education Fund. “This is a little bit like saying that people ought to use the internet without Google or other search engines. While state spending information may technically still be available online or by request under California’s Open Records Act, it is not truly accessible because the data are once again scattered across multiple agency websites, each with different formats and locations for the information, or require an official records request.”
In comparison, Texas and Kentucky received A grades for their accessible websites that allow users to easily click through and find not just overall spending figures but itemized lists of small to large costs that add up to the total.
We think a streamlined way to review California’s financials online is a needed and would be a valued public service. Given the way our state operates currently, however, we’re not going to hold our breath that re-launching a website for public access will be a priority anytime soon. In some ways, rightfully so, as out-of-control pension costs and education spending are bigger fish to fry.
So if we are to follow Gov. Brown’s directive of looking to specific agencies, then those who hold the information need to give it freely and quickly.
Each government leader, manager, supervisor, police and fire chief, superintendent, district attorney and more should be open to and willing to help their constituents find the information they seek.
For their part, constituents upset with the way things are running should educate themselves on how to properly submit a request and pursue it so they can be informed residents and voters.

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Exercise your rights
For tips on how to submit a public records act request and for a look at the Journal’s past requests, visit auburnjournal.com and search for reporter Sara Seyydin’s story, “Sunshine week promotes open government.”