The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Editorials

March 18, 2014

Let the sun shine

This week marks the celebration of “Sunshine Week.”

And, no, this is not a sarcastic reference to our recent weather.

Rather, it is a reminder of our freedoms, and the right to transparent, responsible government to which all citizens in our republic are entitled.

It isn’t always easy to keep governments responsible and above-board, from our local governments to the federal government. And while we think we play our part in making sure citizens in southern West Virginia are kept fully informed about governmental activity, this is a crucial issue not just for the media, but for everybody.

Freedom of Information laws can be used to open windows into government action that some bureaucrats and officials would like to keep closed.

This is not an indictment of our public officials but rather an acknowledgment of human nature. Open and transparent government can, at times, make the jobs of our public servants more complicated, and we understand that. But in the long run, we think openness in government makes it more responsive to those of us it serves, and better for citizen and official alike.

Federal and state Freedom of Information laws are not just for the media, but for all citizens. To us, that makes protecting these laws and the rights granted to all Americans worth not just mentioning but celebrating.

What do these laws do for us?

For one, they can be used to spotlight how money influences politics, where that money goes, and to whom it is going and from where it came. It serves as a brake on potential government malfeasance and poor management.

These laws also help us by allowing us to stop or prevent governmental policies that we find to be detrimental to the community. Often, by learning about these policies before they are implemented, we can open a debate on them before they become law or regulation.

An honest debate is all anyone can ask. But we can’t have that conversation if laws and policies are being made and implemented behind the scenes, hidden in a gray twilight of a secret bureaucracy.

Requesting records from governmental agencies can be frustrating, and it is all-too-common that they are reluctant to provide the materials in a timely fashion.

But that is no reason to let them off the hook. The law, in most cases, is on the side of those seeking governmental documents and records.

The West Virginia Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to provide public records in response to any request, as long as those records are within the guidelines of what public agencies and government are required to release.

To access information on making a FOIA request in West Virginia go to this website www.nfoic.org/west-virginia-sample-foia-request

For federal document requests, go to www.foia.gov/

The ultimate watchdog over governmental officials and bureaucrats is the public. It is a role which none of us can afford to shirk.

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