Sunday was the first day of Sunshine Week 2016.
Sunshine Week could easily be overlooked in this final week before Arkansas schools go on spring break, in this week of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, in this week that brings us the excitement and distraction of the first and second rounds of March Madness.
But we want to not only bring Sunshine Week to your attention, but empower you to become a part of it. Coordinated by the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week (March 13-19 this year) is a nationwide effort to promote a dialogue on the importance of transparency in our government and freedom of information.
Sunshine laws provide for open records of government documents and open meetings of public officials. All states have sunshine laws; the first were enacted by the state of Utah in 1898, according to Encyclopedia.com. In Arkansas, the state Freedom of Information law was enacted in 1967 after a push by a coalition of citizens and journalists and the support of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller.
The law "gives Arkansans access to public records and public meetings, with limited exceptions," according to the Arkansas Attorney General website. Specifically, as the Arkansas Freedom of Information handbook outlines, the Act states that "except as otherwise specifically provided by law, all meetings … of the governing bodies of all municipalities … shall be public meetings."
Having an open government goes a long way in keeping a community strong and vibrant. That includes proper observance of public meeting protocol. We encourage our public officials at all levels of government to become intimately familiar with the sunshine laws, and to always remain conscious of possible conflicts. Do not violate the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act by engaging in private conversations with other members via phone, email, text, Snapchat, Facebook messages, etc. When these conversations instead are held at public meetings, it allows all of the elected minds to be part of the same conversation. It allows citizens to know the hows and whys involved with the workings of their government.
Our government works best when it’s in the sunshine — not the sunshine shining down on us from that fiery ball in the sky, but the concept that a democratic government should operate in public view, where its citizens can see it.
Officially, Sunshine Week lasts just seven days, but it’s up to all of us — media and citizens and elected officials — to keep the light shining on government at all levels all year long.