This is your week. Seven days in which the public’s right to know what government is doing, spending and saying is championed, celebrated and defended to the hilt.
It’s called Sunshine Week and it has been held since 2005 in the week coinciding with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.
The beautiful thing about sunshine is that it is nonpartisan. It does not care about talking points or whether your favorite political show is on Fox News, MSNBC or NPR. Sunshine illuminates what’s happening behind the scenes in government at every level.
Without transparency, democracy withers as individuals no longer possess the facts necessary to make fully informed decisions about their elected representatives and the policies they pursue.
There are politicians and bureaucrats, of course, who don’t want the public to see the facts, much less get a look at the sausage being made behind closed doors.
But you have the right to see what’s going on. And that right extends to the news media, whose charter is to serve as the public’s eyes and ears.
What gives you that right? In our state, there’s the California Public Records Act and the state’s open-meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act. These two laws cover cities, counties, school districts, special districts and other public agencies.
Something else gives you access to public records. Jim Zachary, editor of The Valdosta (Georgia) Daily Times, summed it up in an editorial he wrote for Sunshine Week:
“Every action of government is your business.
“Every document held in government halls is your piece of paper.
“Every penny spent by government is your money.
“From the courthouse to the statehouse to the White House, government belongs to the governed and not the governing.
“You have the right to know what the governing are up to, always.”
Remember his words. Hold them close to your heart. And protect them because the public’s right to know is always under attack. These days the attacks of old – from politicians trying to hide their tracks – are accompanied by the breakneck advance of technology and the ability to bury secrets or make them evaporate into thin air.
Bee reporters overcome these obstacles by using myriad tools. For example, California Public Record Acts requests were made in 2016 for these stories:
▪ The ongoing federal investigation into Fresno Unified School District’s award of no-bid construction contracts;
▪ The “Living in Misery” investigation into substandard rental conditions in Fresno and City Hall’s failure to enforce regulations aimed at making slumlords fix their properties;
▪ Why City Hall took more than a decade to address concerns over discolored water and pipe corrosion in northeast Fresno;
▪ And the conflict between Fresno County judges and the Board of Supervisors over the five-month suspension of the county’s probation chief.
Sometimes, agencies comply with our requests in a timely manner. Other times, they try to frustrate us and deny us.
Under former Superintendent Michael Hanson, Fresno Unified adopted a stall-and-deny strategy that included requiring reporters to file Public Records Act requests for even basic information. We hope the district will end these tactics now that he is gone.
The managing research attorney for Fresno Superior Court said that the court was not required to provide the records The Bee requested regarding the suspension of the probation chief.
We got to the bottom of that story anyway. Rick Chavez went back to work and received a financial settlement. The court’s amateurish oversight of Chavez cost taxpayers about $365,000.
Some advice for public officials and their minions who want to hide facts: When records requests go unfulfilled, our reporters keep on digging and widening their circle of sources. They are the public’s watchdogs, not your lapdogs.