Your right to know
This is the 12th annual Sunshine Week, focusing on open government and freedom of information.
Since 2005, the week has been held annually in mid-March, coinciding with National FOI Day and the March 16 birthday of James Madison, who wrote the Bill of Rights. The weeklong event stems from Sunshine Sunday, launched by Florida newspaper editors in 2002 to highlight efforts by lawmakers to add numerous exemptions to that state’s public records law.
“Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why,” according to the Sunshine Week website, www.sunshineweek.org.
Though created by journalists, Sunshine Week participants “include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know,” according to the Sunshine Week website.
A transparent, open government is essential to a properly functioning democracy. The public has the right to know, deserves to know and must know what the government is doing.
Transparency allows for accountability. How can the public gauge and judge the actions of elected and appointed officials without having knowledge of what they are doing and why?
Some government officials seem to forget sometimes that they work for us. The government is not their private enclave. It exists to serve the public. It is funded by our taxes.
The federal Freedom of Information Act, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website, took effect in 1967, ensuring that “any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records,” though there are special exemptions to the law.
In Maryland, there are two key laws governing open government and freedom of information.
The Maryland Public Information Act — available online at www.oag. state.md.us/Opengov/pia.htm — is the state’s freedom of information law, giving the “public the right to access government records without unnecessary cost and delay,” according to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
The law applies to all three branches of Maryland state government as well as local governments.
The Maryland Open Meetings Act — www.oag.state.md.us/Opengov/ Openmeetings/index.htm — provides for public access to the meetings of public bodies.
The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to publicize a meeting, even when the plan is to claim one of the 14 exemptions to have it closed. A vote must be taken in an open meeting, before a closed meeting can be convened. A closing statement must be made available immediately upon the decision to close a meeting. It needs to go beyond a generic reference to the law. Minutes of open meetings must be made available in a reasonable amount of time.
The Open Meetings Act page also contains a link to an online class on the Open Meetings Act. Recommended for the public, press, elected and appointed officials and volunteers, the class takes less than three hours to complete and includes six lessons with quizzes throughout.
We hope our elected and appointed officials are familiar with and properly follow both the open meetings and public information laws.
We also strongly encourage the public to become familiar with the process for getting public information and the laws concerning open meetings.
It’s your government. It’s your right to know.