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SUNSHINE WEEK: Public notices should stay in the sun

In Advocacy on March 16, 2015 at 7:09 pm

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By Jim Zachary
Editor, Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times
Director, Transparency Project of Georgia

As we recognize Sunshine Week, the public’s right to know is under assault throughout the United States.

State lawmakers are whittling away at Sunshine Laws in multiple ways, not the least of which is the effort to remove requirements to publish public notices in the place where communities are most likely to find important information they want and need to know — in the local newspaper.

Efforts to allow local governments the option of placing required public notices on government websites, or on third party sites that bury the information is poor, ill-advised legislation that should be viewed as a threat to and further erosion of government transparency.

The reason public notices are required for publication in newspapers is to make them available to as wide an audience as possible.

Keeping public notices public is critical.

Public notices alert the general public about bankruptcy proceedings, adoptions, foreclosures, public hearings, tax liens, local legislative proposals, zoning changes and proposed tax increases — all things the public wants and needs to know.
Burying that information on a government website would be an assault on taxpayers, and all residents.

Public notices should not be hidden in a dark corner.

They should be kept out in the sunshine where they can be easily seen.

Government cannot be its own watchdog.

Newspapers have a long, important legacy of helping the public keep an eye on local government through news reporting and the publication of government notices.

Newspapers also serve as a historical record that will be looked upon by researchers now and years in the future. Much of that record is documented by public notices.

Simply placing required public notices on government owned or controlled websites would mean a person would have to know exactly what they’re searching for — or what keywords to use — in order to find the specific information they want to access.

The government website model effectively hides the actions of government.

Making public notices available online is important and almost all newspapers also place the notices on local websites and statewide sites through press associations that aggregate the data.

Lawmakers should stop assaulting the principles of government transparency and work, instead, to protect the public’s right to know.

For the media, this column and additional open government columns and cartoons are available this week at: 

http://www.sunshineweek.org


Jim Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times and Director of the Transparency Project of Georgia (www.transparencyprojectofgeorgia.com)

David E. Hudson Award for Open Government attributed to Transparency Project

In Advocacy on June 15, 2014 at 1:05 am

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Co-director James Zachary was on hand with Jim for both the David E. Hudson Award presentation and the Freedom of Information Award at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. 

JEKYLL ISLAND — Transparency Project of Georgia Director Jim Zachary accepted the David E. Hudson Award for Open Government at an awards ceremony at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel.

The coveted David Hudson Award was created to honor journalists who work to keep government meetings and records open to the public and Zachary said he believe the work done by the Transparency Project of Georgia was a key part of being named the recipient because of the ways the grass roots project has empowered citizens.

“This was a team effort,” the honoree said.

Kelsey Cochran, James Zachary and I do what we do because of the values we share and our commitment to ordinary men and women who often feel as though government can do whatever it wants to do and that no one is willing to hold it accountable. We don’t accept that and are driven by the belief that government belongs to the governed and not the governing,” Jim Zachary said.

The award is named for one of the nation’s leading First Amendment and Open Government attorneys, David Hudson.

Hudson was on-hand for the presentation and called Zachary a “warrior for open government.”

“I have had a very fortunate career and been honored with many awards, but this one means more than words can express because of the man whose name it bears.” Zachary said during his acceptance speech. “David Hudson’s work reminds us why we do what we do. It is not about the awards. It is about each of our communities and the people who read our newspapers.”

Zachary encouraged the newspaper executives at the awards presentation to support and empower reporters and editors who are true watchdogs and hold government accountable. “Our work should be underpinned with the core principle that government belongs to the governed and not to the governing,” he said.

For the second year in a row, one of the newspapers where Zachary serves as editor, The Henry Daily Herald,  has received the coveted Freedom of Information Award.

The FOI Award is considered one of the state’s top honors for newspapers and recognizes journalists who champion government transparency.

Robert Williams, president of the National Newspaper Association, was honored at the beginning of the awards ceremony and encouraged Zachary to, “Keep doing what you do and keep inspiring others to do it.”

Zachary said, “I have been blessed throughout my career and am humbled by the awards I have received both in Tennessee and Georgia, but what drives me and inspires the work is the plight of ordinary men and women who struggle to pay their property taxes each year, are concerned about quality education for their children or believe they are powerless to fight city hall.”

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Government transparency directly related to our liberty

In Advocacy on April 16, 2014 at 3:40 pm

In his book “Transparent Government: What it Means and How you can Make it Happen,” Donald Gordan quotes Patrick Henry’s words from the June 9, 1788 Virginia Constitutional Convention:

“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”

Gordon, who teaches political history at Northwestern University writes, ” To practice democracy in a republic requires that we not abdicate our role as citizens.”

The author elaborated on Henry’s strong advocacy for transparency in the new government when he said “…to cover with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business, is an abomination in the eyes of every intelligent man, and every friend to this country.”

In fact, Gordon suggests that it would not be inaccurate to refer to Patrick Henry as “the father of transparency in government.”

Gordon also reminds the reader of the words of Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Edward Carrington that are often quoted by journalists:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the later.”

However, despite Jefferson’s appraisal of newspapers as a Fourth Estate, providing a system of checks and balances for a fledgling republic, Gordon is quick to point out that the founding fathers placed the primary responsibility for holding government in check squarely on the shoulders of citizens themselves.

In Part I: Making the Case for Transparency in Government, he writes:

“Jefferson believed in the superiority of newspapers over government. He would have been proud of the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters for the Washington Post, in uncovering the cover-up of the Watergate scandal. But Jefferson also understood that ‘the people are the only censors of their governors.’ The media certainly play a major role in keeping government honest, but in the end it is We the People who are inevitably responsible for keeping our democracy. It is better to have a thousand eyes than just a few focus on the workings of our government.”

Gordon calls the words “We the People,” the three most significant words in the history of the United States, explaining, “We are at once the government and the governed.”

Not giving ordinary people access to government meetings or documents is taking away what rightfully belongs to them.

It is stealing their liberty.

All the business government does, is the people’s business.

As a newspaper, these principles guide us, motivate us and temper us in the commission of our duties.

As citizens, these principles, and the words of our founders, should rally us and embolden us to hold government accountable at all times.

We encourage our county commissioners, chairman, members of the board of education, mayors and city council members to never lose sight of the very basic core values that are part and parcel of our constitutional republic and essential to our freedom as Americans.

By  James Zachary

Tennessee Transparency Project

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