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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

Tennessee Transparency Project helps shine light as part of Sunshine Week

In Advocacy on March 17, 2014 at 10:19 pm

The Tennessee Transparency Project has joined open government advocates throughout the nation during Sunshine Week as we highlight the importance of government transparency.

Tennessee Transparency Project opinion column, written by Director Jim Zachary, is included in the Sunshine Week Toolkit located at http://www.sunshineweek.org

The Tennessee Transparency Project opinion column from the Toolkit:

 

TRANSPARENCY — NOT REPUBLICAN — NOT DEMOCRAT

Openness in government is not a liberal, conservative, republican, democrat, independent, TEA party or libertarian issue. The importance of transparency in local, state and federal government should transcend parties and political ideologies. Checks and balances provide few checks and little balance when officials broker deals behind closed doors and conceal documents that contain important information that citizens have the right, and often the need, to know. Local government has the biggest impact in the lives of citizens on a day to day basis. Whether it is in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, personal property taxes, business taxes, state-shared dollars or federal grants, loans and funding, local government is 100 percent taxpayer funded. The decisions being made, the monies being spent and the records being kept by city hall, the county commission, the board of education or the utility district all belong to liberals, conservatives, republicans, democrats, independents, TEA party volunteers, libertarians and even politically disinterested individuals. All stakeholders have a stake in open meetings and public records and should care about transparency issues. Bipartisanship is like the weather — everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. The difference is while a person can’t change the weather, officials could choose to work together. The lack of and need for true government transparency should be truly be a bipartisan cause. Any elected officials who truly care about public service in a real and meaningful way and fully understand what a representative form of government is all about, should not only champion openness in government, but should be the most effective watchdogs, looking out for the public trust. Sadly, those kinds of elected officials are hard to find. We encourage those officials who do care and who do understand to become a part of the transparency project and enhance their public service.

Jim Zachary, Director

James Zachary, co-Director

Tennessee Transparency Project

 

Time to champion Sunshine Week

In Advocacy on March 12, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Sunshine Week 2014 begins Sunday, March 16.

The Transparency Project encourages all open government advocates, newspapers, watchdog groups and public officials who believe in the importance of government transparency to join us in highlighting this week long effort. 

The American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are encouraging open government advocates throughout the nation to join them in celebrating the importance of open government. The campaign begins Sunday, March 16, and concludes Saturday, March 22. 

 There are dozens of Sunshine Week events hosted by various organizations around the country. The 16th annual National Freedom of Information Day at the Newseum and the Chicago Headline Club’s FOIA Fest are Friday, March 14. The D.C. Open Government Summittakes place next Wednesday, March 19. Other events include Seventh Annual FOI Day CelebrationSunshine Week 2014 Celebration at the Department of Justice, Unlocking Government Data,Threats to Transparency: Problems with Money in Politics, and other events listed at sunshineweek.org.

According to ASNE, Sunshine Week 2014 is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and donations from Bloomberg and the Gridiron Club and Foundation. 

Watchdog groups, newspapers and individuals are encouraged to take part and can find a “Toolkit” at the Sunshine Week website that includes free editorial cartoons and opinion columns to be used during the week of March 16-22.

For more information on Sunshine Week and how to participate, visit sunshineweek.org or contact us at sunshineweek@asne.org.

Should mug shots be open public records?

In Advocacy on February 21, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Websites that publish mug shots of all arrested individuals and then charge for removal of the images, have angered both citizens and public officials across the nation, resulting in what could be viewed as a threat to open public records.

Some states have enacted legislation that would regulate the “extortion” tactics of websites such as mugshots.com, while others have moved to restrict the release of intake photos to all citizens and media. Some have started requiring a signed, sworn, statement from anyone acquiring a mug shot that they will not sell it or place it on a website that charges for removal.

A bill considered by our neighboring state in the Georgia House of Representatives would exempt mug shots from the state’s Open Records Act.

In its original form, the bill would exempt intake photos, mug shots, of arrested people who have not been convicted of a crime from the state’s Open Records Act.

Obviously, and understandably, we oppose any erosion of the Open Records Act.

Public information should always remain public.

Attorney David Hudson, who has arguably done more to champion the cause of open government than anyone in the region, has correctly pointed out that major revisions to the Open Meeting Act, under the direction of the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, were ratified in 2012 and it hardly seems time to be revisiting, and weakening, its provisions.

The publication of mug shots can often be a valuable tool used by law enforcement to help catch dangerous people and help keep communities safe.

A mug shot in the local newspaper may help someone identify a person accused of violent crime or who may be a danger to children, after the suspect has been bonded out of jail and is awaiting trial. Homicides and even child predator cases can sometimes take months or years for the court to determine guilt or innocence.

While the proposed bill would not have prohibited the publication of a suspect’s name, age, address and the charges, sometimes the accused may be from another state and the age and address would simply not be enough to identify the accused.

A newspaper reader could see a photo of an accused child predator, however, and alert officials they saw the person lurking around a school or daycare, for example.

Placing the burden on local law enforcement to make the determination of when a mug shot should be published and when it should not be is most likely a burden of responsibility the authorities would rather not have placed on their shoulders.

Responsible newspapers and other media outlets make responsible decisions every day, and news judgment should be left to journalists, not to government.

Putting any branch of government in charge of what news can and cannot be published is a dangerous precedent and a potential threat to democracy.

The Georgia bill, according the the sponsor, is to retard websites such as mugshots.com that run every mug shot of every arrested person in almost every jurisdiction and then charges people a “ransom” to take the image down off the website. The sponsor has said that he never intended the bill to be looked upon as an assault on newspapers or what is being called the “legitimate media.”

Attorneys with clients who had their image plastered on those websites, accused of some minor violation, but having never been convicted of anything, argue though they are innocent until proven guilty, they become victims for life because of the fact the image is online and it can affect things such as employment opportunities or reputation in a community.

The problem is these types of legislation would restrict the image from all citizens, and not merely those out-of-state businesses and their websites.

There is no easy answer to that problem, but we do feel like the original bill is over reaching and a bit like going gnat hunting with an elephant gun.

Before any version of this or any legislation addressing the Open Meetings Act makes it to a vote in any state, we encourage all legislators to think about the reasons for government transparency.

The most basic and primary thing to consider is the fact all the business that government does is the people’s business.

All the records that government holds belong to the people.

The reason why is that we are constitutionally self-governed.

In fact, it is really an irony that there would even be a debate regarding whether any government record that is not privileged in the interest of national security, should ever be regarded as anything other than a public record.

Since government belongs to the governed, then all the records it holds — including mug shots — belong to the governed, citizens.

— Director Jim Zachary

Legislation by loophole is a violation of the public trust

In Advocacy on January 24, 2014 at 1:21 am

Some big corporate fat cat finds loopholes in the tax code and pays virtually no income taxes despite making millions and living a lavish lifestyle.

A successful high-profile hedge fund manager finds ways to benefit from proprietary information and grow personal investments without technically being guilty of insider trading.

A large commercial developer knows all the strings to pull and buttons to push to get permits to do work without the same kind of scrutiny that an individual builder finds constraining and sometimes prohibitive.

Or, a flimflam artist finds ways to bilk state and federal public assistance programs for tens of thousands of dollars, qualifying for benefits by being a little less than honest, but can’t really be convicted of illegality.

None of them have really violated the law.

They operate on the fringes.

They benefit from loopholes.

So, how do we feel about these things?

Largely, we do not think they should be rewarded for their ingenuity, craftiness and deceit.

Rather, most common, ordinary people feel violated.

And, we should.

When people look for loopholes in the law, their obvious intent is to get by with as much as they possibly can without going to jail.

When elected officials legislate by loophole while it may not technically constitute a violation of the law, it absolutely violates the public trust.

It is not exactly a secret that city and county officials use technicalities and loopholes to get around the state’s Open Meetings Act.

When attorneys instruct their clients on how to deliberate the public’s business in private without technically violating the Sunshine Law, it is obvious there is a total disregard for the public’s right to know.

What is commonly known as vote-getting is just wrong.

The Open Meetings Act basically requires that any time members of an elected body meet then it constitutes a legal meeting, that must be open to public following an adequate public notice.

So, some have interpreted that to mean that any number less than a quorum can meet and deliberate all they want. They are wrong. Deliberations of public business should always happen in front of the public.

What transpires when a non-elected government professional calls and polls members or when just a couple members of an elected body deliberate over coffee, it becomes a bit of a game, or at least a tactic, that elected officials use to circumvent the public notice and public meeting requirements.

It amounts to vote-getting.

While officials think they are being clever, they are actually being dishonest and disingenuous.

Citizens have every right to know everything their elected government is doing and why they are doing it.

It is not enough to merely vote on every piece of legislation in public.

Deliberations should lake place before the public as well, whether it is at a public work session or in the regular meeting itself.

When a city council, county commission or board of education comes to a meeting, someone makes a motion, another makes a second, then they vote on some significant piece of business with no discussion, no description, no debate, it is obvious they are practicing loophole legislation.

Why even look for loopholes in the law if everything you are doing is on the up and up?

— Tennessee Transparency Project Director Jim Zachary

Government retreats show disregard for citizens

In Advocacy on January 14, 2014 at 4:52 pm

It is that time of year again. It is retreat season.

Local governments are planning their out-of-town all-day or two-day retreats where they get together and discuss their respective legislative agendas for the rest of the year.

To be fair, they give public notice and the public is welcome to attend.

We should also say the ordinary practice of city and county government of holding out-of-town retreats is not illegal.

Despite those facts, it is very poor public service to discuss the people’s business in another city.

Taking the people’s business away from the people, while not a violation of the law, is a violation of the public trust.

When city councils, county commissions and boards of education go to another city or county for a retreat, they know citizens will not follow them.

Most of them likely do not even consider the implications of the practice or think about the message it sends to the people they are chosen to represent.

Citizens not only have the right to know what decisions their elected officials reach, they have every right to know how they reach those decisions.

Deliberations of the public’s business should always be before the public.

The fact they send out notices of those out-of-town gatherings does not mean they are really accessible.

Whether they admit it or not, the retreats often give them the opportunity to be more candid on things they would not want to discuss in public.

The only thing they really seem to be retreating from is the very public they are elected to represent.

Those elected to office will adamantly defend their standing practice of annual retreats.

That defense will most likely center around the argument that state law allows it.

That begs the question — should you do everything or anything you can do or want to do, just because it is not illegal?

Those holding office need to ask themselves why they ran for office, why they chose public service and why they feel the need to go to a nice out-of-town conference center to do what they could do at home, in their own city.

A true public servant seeks public office to serve the public.

The public is best served by openness, accessibility, transparency and amenability.

Local government keeps moving farther and farther away from the people.

The entire mindset of our elected officials needs to change.

The more open you are, the more accessible you are, the more public trust you will build.

The more you go off on retreats, hide behind the closed doors of an executive session or even whisper to one another during meetings, the more people will be suspicious and the less they will trust you with their business.

It should also not go without saying, these out-of-town retreats are on the public dime.

It should also be noted that an out-of-town business is benefiting from the amount of money spent on the retreat, rather than a local one. 

Citizens should show up at regular city, county and board of education meetings and demand more openness.

Then, during elections vote for officials who pledge openness. But, then again, they all pledge and promise openness, don’t they?

— Editor Jim Zachary

New government transparency project launched

In Advocacy on December 31, 2013 at 11:57 pm

A new open government advocacy project was launched today.

The sister site to the Tennessee Transparency Project can be found at:

http://www.transparencyprojectofgeorgia.com

Leaf Chronicle publishes transparency commentary

In Advocacy on December 5, 2013 at 5:28 pm

In a recent guest editorial published by the Leaf Chronicle in Clarksville, we find, “The culture of many government institutions still seems more about protecting the bureaucracy and fiefdoms than public accountability or transparency.” The editorial, “Be open with public salaries,” published Nov. 15 focuses on an AP study about the publication of salaries by public officials on local government websites, a requirement in some states.

The study indicated that even in jurisdictions that comply with mandates to disclose the information, that the “disclosure,” is often less than transparent. More often than not the information is buried, incomplete, difficult to navigate or only published for a short period of time.

It is always in the best interest of citizens and it should be in the best interest of elected officials to fully disclose salaries. Public salaries are the public’s business and citizens have every right to know how every dime of their taxpayer dollars is being spent.