Editorial: Keeping sunshine on records

Mar. 09, 2013 @ 05:16 PM

Today marks the beginning of a week we treasure in the newspaper business. But it is about far more than us.

Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know. It is about open government being good government. Rest assured, recent events prove that without open records, the public is often left in the dark.

Consider one involving our congressman, from a report in The Washington Post. They reviewed financial disclosure forms of all 535 members of Congress, finding out how they manage their money and whether their legislative actions bring any personal benefit. They found 73 lawmakers pushing legislation that could benefit businesses or industries in which they or a family member was invested or involved.

Among the 73 was Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the Democrat from Wilson. He’s helped obtain $817,500 toward revitalization of buildings in Wilson. He also owns 19 properties within three-quarters of a mile of the project, though his office is quick to assure “the location of the Downtown Wilson buildings in no way influenced his decision to support the projects.”

There’s also the Lexington Herald-Leader’s exposure of a chief executive of two state agencies in Kentucky spending more than $50,000 on out of state trips, exceeding the daily per diem and treating guests to $100-plus meals. The Asbury Park Press found federal government civilian employees earned $105 billion in salaries for 2011, then got $439 million more in bonuses.

One community had fire and police officers taking home more than half their salary — over $125,000 — in overtime, paid time off, sick pay and various allowances. Another discovered women were paid 11 percent less than men in a local government job review. Public records expose hazardous waste dumpings near elementary schools, health inspections and the list goes on.

Sunshine Week isn’t just about newspapers having access for the public. Civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools, historians and others are interested in having a right to public records.

We quote Jim Lee of the Carroll County (Md.) Times in advising, “Overseeing government at all levels is not a press right, it is a right of every citizen. And the more citizens exercise that right, the better our government will become.”