Greetings! It’s Sunshine Week, the time of the year when the news industry raises the nation’s awareness to collectively celebrate open government policies. Thanks to the Freedom of Information and Open Meeting laws, people legally have a right to know about government operations and decision making. These state and federal “sunshine” laws promote government transparency and are fundamental part of a democratic society. As the very first sentence of New York’s legislation states, the policies enable the public to hold elected officials accountable.
“…a free society is maintained when government is responsive and responsible to the public, and when the public is aware of governmental actions…”
As journalists, we rely on these laws to gain access to records, so we can help the public become better informed. In today’s internet age, accessing information about government operations is easier than ever, and often just a few simple clicks away. Other times, though, extracting records from government entities can be difficult and time consuming. People sometimes encounter fierce resistance, as reporters sometimes do. In either case, obtaining information is typically a worthwhile endeavor. So remember, generally speaking, the law is on your side. Whether you’re in the news business or member of general public, it’s good idea for all citizens to become well-versed in the sunshine laws to assure that you’re exercising your rights, or not being deprived of it.
The Department of Justice implements open government policies for federal government agencies. You can find their rules and guidelines at www.justice.gov/open. If you need information about a school or a local or state government entity, New York State’s laws apply. The New York Department of State provides detailed explanations of the relevant laws and rules. You can review the laws, seek assistance, including legal opinions on the nuances of the laws through a special office in the state department called the Committee of Open Government at www.dos.ny.gov/coog.
The New York State’s comptroller’s office also compiled a useful tool that tracks government spending. It’s called Open Book New York at www.openbooknewyork.com. It will link you to state contracts, state and local government spending and public authority information.
Collectively, these tools, in addition to informing the public, and keeping officials accountable, can help raise awareness to expose waste. Digging into it, may even help save you money in the long run. So, whether its sunshine week or every week of the year, remember these tools.
Editor’s note: If you have been caught up in a battle related to open government policies, contact our news outlet. We’d like to share your story. If something raises a red flag while searching government databases, let us know. It may be a story we’d like to dig into.
Sunshine Week is brought to you by the News Readers Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.