News­pa­pers re­main a vi­tal ray of sun­shine

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

Mary­land’s patch­work of neigh­bor­hoods, towns and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties cre­ate a di­verse and won­der­ful land­scape. But what is our big­gest strength can also be our great­est chal­lenge. With so many dif­fer­ent lo­cal gov­ern­ments in play — 181 in all — each with its own set of cus­toms and poli­cies, cit­i­zens can eas­ily be­come con­fused when try­ing to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion.

In honor of Sun­shine Week, March 12 through 18, the MDDC Press As­so­ci­a­tion con­vened a col­lab­o­ra­tive project that in­volved many of its mem­bers, in­clud­ing the Mary­land In­de­pen­dent. Edi­to­rial staff in South­ern Mary­land au­dited lo­cal gov­ern­ment web­sites and ex­am­ined the type of in­for­ma­tion read­ily avail­able. In a nut­shell, the di­ver­sity of Mary­land that we cel­e­brate also trans­lates into an un­even qual­ity of ac­ces­si­ble gov­ern­ment in­for­ma­tion.

Of­ten, the lo­cal news­pa­per (both in print and on­line) serves as a uni­fy­ing force, dis­till­ing and dis­sem­i­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion to the pub­lic. We cel­e­brate this tra­di­tion and seek to bring light to the top­ics and gov­ern­ment ac­tions that af­fect our com­mu­ni­ties with ob­jec­tive re­port­ing. Mary­land’s cit­i­zens have the right to know how gov­ern­ment trans­acts busi­ness on their be­half. Sun­shine Week, cel­e­brated an­nu­ally this week, fo­cuses at­ten­tion on shin­ing the bright light of trans­parency into those dark cor­ners of gov­ern­ment.

The tim­ing of Sun­shine Week, which falls in the midst of the 90-day Gen­eral Assem­bly ses­sion, is well placed to high­light the op­por­tu­nity for the state to make con­tin­ued im­prove­ments. Founded in 2005 by the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of News Ed­i­tors, Sun­shine Week pro­motes open gov­ern­ment and pub­lic ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion.

At the state level, Mary­land leg­is­la­tors are con­sid­er­ing HB 880/SB 450, which would strengthen open meet­ings laws by re­quir­ing at least one mem­ber of a pub­lic body take Open Meet­ings Act train­ing and pro­vide ad­di­tional re­port­ing re­quire­ments to high­light vi­o­la­tions of the act by pub­lic bod­ies. Leg­is­la­tors are also con­sid­er­ing a pro­posal by Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) to live-stream House and Se­nate floor ses­sions as well as con­sis­tent fund­ing for Mary­land Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion.

These in­cre­men­tal changes would help im­prove the cul­ture of gov­ern­ment open­ness, but there’s still a long way to go. En­force­ment mech­a­nisms for Pub­lic In­for­ma­tion Act and Open Meet­ings Act vi­o­la­tions are woe­fully in­ad­e­quate and many pub­lic bod­ies seek to keep their ac­tions in the shad­ows.

Cit­i­zens also want ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion about how gov­ern­ment is spend­ing their money. Too of­ten dur­ing this leg­isla­tive ses­sion, we have seen a push to elim­i­nate no­tices of bids and pro­cure­ment from their in­de­pen­dent lo­cal news­pa­per and news web­site in fa­vor of post­ing on a gov­ern­ment-owned web­site alone. As the MDDC study shows, pub­li­ca­tion and promi­nence is highly un­re­li­able if gov­ern­ment is the only source.

In the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment of “fake news,” par­ti­san wran­gling and sweep­ing change, Mary­lan­ders should know their lo­cal news­pa­pers re­main com­mit­ted to the dis­in­fect­ing power of sun­light and the brac­ing vigor of ob­jec­tive re­port­ing.

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