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Our View: Sunshine Week is time to reflect on transparency

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Is your local, state or federal government as transparent as you would like? If not, this is the week to ask why. In addition to green beer and colored eggs, March 16-22 is a celebration of National Sunshine Week. Not because we all need to be reminded of the Spring Equinox, but because we need to remind ourselves of the right to government information through effective, consistent open records laws and processes. Journalists call is sunshine, as in shining a light into the dark recesses of government secrecy, states the Society of Professional Journalists states. The supernova of Sunshine Week is the federal Freedom of Information Act. Signed by President Johnson in 1966, the FOIA laid the groundwork for public records requests and government's response. But more than four decades after becoming law, FOIA remains in an embittered battle between government claims of national interests and citizenry's search for the public's right to know. And you thought that FOIA was just a journalist's weapon of choice? According to a 2005 study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, only 6 percent of FOIA requests are submitted by journalists. More than two-thirds of requests are submitted by commercial interests, and the remaining by citizens and non-profit groups. Recent studies indicate the need for FOIA and open government has never been more necessary, according to a Sunshine Week study by Ohio University and Scripps Howard News Service. During the past three years Americans increasingly “ from 62 percent to 74 percent “ believe the federal government is very or somewhat secretive, the Scripps study found. When selecting a presidential candidate, 87 percent feel a candidate's position on open government is important, the study said. On the local level, 91 percent say open government views are important in picking a city councilmember or school board candidate. Open government is clearly important to Americans, but where is the line on what should be public and what should be classified? The emergence of the Internet as a research tool has provided a wealth of opportunities to access and share such information. It also has raised a bevy of questions. Citing a California Supreme Court decision last August that publishing salary information of government employees was appropriate in the oversight of the operations, daily newspapers in Chico, San Jose and Sacramento “ among others “ have made searchable salary databases available to online viewers. Such access sparked lively discussion in the Journal editorial board meeting Monday afternoon. The Journal would certainly see a spike in online traffic with a listing of Placer County employees, one member said. But another asked why we would single out Placer County. Why not Auburn city employees? Local school administrators? Sierra College employees? Placer County Water Agency? The public surely has a right to know how its public dollars are being spent, and with a huge percentage of government costs in its people, making salary information available would seem a logical step in shining a light on government. But our responsibility as a local, community-minded newspaper also lies in the context of how we provide such data. If and when we make such information available, we'll do so with the goal of furthering the public debate on governmental effectiveness and wise, appropriate use of public resources. We salute National Sunshine Week and the pursuit of open, transparent government. May the light shine brightly, whether it be in the hands of journalists or citizens.