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Celebrating open government

Monday was the start of Sunshine Week, a celebration of laws across the nation that open records and meetings to the public, laws that let the sun shine on the shadowy parts of government.

The Sunshine Law, also referred to as the “Open Meetings Law,” is legislative policy declaring, “that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret.”

Through the Colorado Public Records Law, legislative policy also declares, “to be the public policy of this state that all public records shall be open for inspection by any person …”

Last week you were privy to the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) in action. On the back page of your newspaper, you were able to view the salaries and budgets of public entities in our community.

You would be in the dark about those public entities’ budgets, salaries and benefits without the Sunshine Law and CORA.

CORA is a portion of state statute that guarantees public access to almost all government documents.

Although Colorado has had an open records act since 1969, the battle for transparency continues.

For example, when candidates apply for executive positions with public agencies, information submitted by the finalists becomes public record. They may request in writing that their applications be kept confidential; however, names of all the finalists must be disclosed to the public. Recent requests for such information on a local level haven’t been successful.

According to Christian Trejbal,
Opinion in a Pinch
Open Government chair, on Dec. 20, 1913, Harper’s Weekly published “What Publicity Can Do” by Louis Brandeis. In it, he painted an image of transparency that still captures the imagination.

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman,” he wrote.

Brandeis was concerned about a worrisome concentration of wealth and power in the hands of his era’s banks and industries.

Americans soon realized that his idea of sunlight could be applied more broadly. Government also functions best under public scrutiny. The chummy club of good ol’ boys who met behind closed doors and emerged only with conclusions would soon fade from the norm. Transparency and accountability became the new paradigm for government.

Today we might call Brandeis’ metaphor a meme, an infectious idea that flourishes. Journalists and other government watchdogs often quote him. We mark Sunshine Week in the spring. Organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and Sunshine in Government Initiative fight for the people’s right to know what government does. All 50 states have sunshine laws, as does the federal government with its Freedom of Information Act.

The whole point of government sunlight is that if officials are embarrassed to let the public know how they reach decisions, they should reconsider whether they are making the right ones.

Brandeis was not the first to suggest shining light on secrets. In 1884, Woodrow Wilson, who would appoint Brandeis to the Supreme Court in 1916, wrote, “Light is the only thing that can sweeten our political atmosphere — light thrown upon every detail of administration in the departments; light diffused through every passage of policy; light blazed full upon every feature of legislation; light that can penetrate every recess or corner in which any intrigue might hide; light that will open to view the innermost chambers of government, drive away all darkness from the treasury vaults.”

Terri Lynn Oldham House

This story was posted on March 20, 2014.