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Citizens have the right to public records, to attend open meetings

Newspapers across the country are joining the celebration this week (March 11-17) of Sunshine Week to encourage access to government, urging both the public and public officials to “Put More Sunshine in Government.”

Today we hear the word “transparency” quite often. It’s a buzz word used by politicians, and especially by their critics, so frequently it seems to have lost its meaning. Everyone wants transparency, but we’ve learned achieving it is rare.

Sunshine week aims to bring the spotlight back onto open government and open meetings, assuring the general public has access to information and meetings; that government operates with transparency.

Without public records, the many pages of newspapers would be empty. Police investigation reports, accident reports, court news, marriage licenses, real estate transfers are just a few of the many public records accessed on a weekly basis by reporters from The Free Press Standard.

If reporters did not have access to township, village and city council, commissioners and school board meetings, the public would not know what government is doing and public officials would not be held accountable for their actions.

While most information is readily available to reporters, the FPS staff has filed its share of public records requests over the years seeking information and is continually reminding public bodies they must inform citizens of both regular and special meetings, all in an effort to keep the public informed.

What many citizens don’t know is they have the same rights reporters do to information. The Ohio Public Records Law and Open Meetings Law, collectively known as the Ohio Sunshine Laws, outline what public records are, how to request them and what to do if you’re denied a record. The Open Meetings Act spells out how governmental bodies must notify the public of meetings, provides very specific reasons why they may meet behind closed doors and what citizens can do if they feel the governmental body has not met its obligation.

All this, coupled with training for public officials by the Ohio Attorney, should provide complete transparency for everyone. And, while many agencies do provide access to public records, others seem to want to control the flow of information to the public.

That is why is it important for citizens and newspapers alike to continue their push for open records and transparency in government.

Transparency will only enhance confidence and trust in those who serve the public and allow government and the public to work together to make better communities.

In the words of one of our forefathers, James Madison, who even in the early days of our country, understood how important it is for government to be open and transparent:

“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. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Why not take the plunge, not only this week, but throughout the year, and Put More Sunshine in Government?

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