Those were words frequently used this past week by open-government proponents as they marked Sunshine Week. The annual observance was started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to recognize and celebrate the importance of access to public information. The week coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, a key advocate of the Bill of Rights. It gets its name from the notion that corruption happens in secret, and sunshine chases away the darkness to shine a light on that which those in power would prefer be hidden.
Sunshine Week builds on the First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Citizens have the right to public information because governments are largely funded from tax dollars. As obvious as that sounds, we still often have to fight to get public information. The following is just a sampling of the binding opinions issued in 2016 by the Public Access Council arm of the Illinois Attorney General's Office. The PAC's mission is to help residents obtain public documents and access public meetings.
* The Board of Education of Norridge School District 80 violated the Open Meetings Act by prohibiting a resident from recording the open session of the board's Sept. 20, 2016, meeting. The PAC also found that the board's policy of having anyone who wants to record a meeting provide advance notice to the board's president or district superintendent conflicts with the OMA.
* The Harvey School District 152 violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to a request for public records within the time permitted by the extension.
* The Chicago Police Department violated the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act by failing to conduct an adequate search for all emails responsive to a Jan. 28, 2016 request.
* The Housing Authority of the City of Freeport violated the Freedom of Information Act when it denied a request for employee compensation information related to bonuses.
* The board of Trustees of the Village of Caseyville violated the Open Meetings Act by voting to amend and approve a settlement agreement, although the general subject matter of that final action was not included on its meeting agenda.
There are legitimate exemptions to FOIA and OMA; the examples listed here are not among those. Meetings are public and can be recorded. Governments must respond to an FOIA request within time limits. Those providing information through a FOIA request must provide all information actually requested. Compensation for employees is public information because taxpayers pay those salaries. If you're going to take final action on an item, it had better be on the agenda so residents know you're about to spend their money.
Information is power. And when it comes to the public's business, that information should be known by all. In essence, documents and records are owned by the taxpayer, so you have the right to see them. Since elected officials cast votes based on what they believe their constituents want, you have a right to know what those votes are, and those officials must face possible scrutiny for their decisions.
We must always wonder why a government or public official wants to operate in secret or keep information from its residents. More importantly, we must always be ready to challenge the government or official when we find they are attempting to suppress our right to know. There were 15 opinions issued by the attorney general's PAC in 2016; we worry about the instances that were not known or left uncontested. Left unchecked, corruption can fester.
While Sunshine Week is championed by the media, it's really about the public's right to know. Abraham Lincoln said America's democracy was "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Transparent, open and responsive government is attainable — if we, the people, commit ourselves to holding public officials accountable. Sunshine Week may have ended for 2017, but working together, the public and the media can keep the sun shining all year long.