Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week is an effort to promote discussion of the importance of open access to government.

Many people don't know the depth of importance behind our federal and state open meetings and open records laws.

They're what allows a white-hot spotlight to shine on government spending, policy making and the behavior and actions of elected officials at public meetings. These laws light the lamps of accountability in government chambers that might otherwise remain dark or obscured by closed doors.

Today begins the observance of Sunshine Week, which literally stands for the light emanating from our open records and meetings laws. It's a reminder of the importance of public information in keeping our public officials accountable and the need to strengthen weaknesses in sunshine laws.

We've seen plenty of Northwest Indiana examples in which our open records laws have played valuable roles.

In 2014, The Times' search of Lake County Solid Waste Management District records revealed the agency's director was using taxpayer money to purchase lavish gifts for employees and board members — as well as a new model-year vehicle for his personal and business use nearly every year.

He was fired from his post after some of this information was made public.

In November, The Times' computer-assisted analysis of publicly divulged campaign finance data drew a roadmap of influence between private donors and some of Indiana government's largest and most influential campaign funds.

Ongoing Times investigations will continue to use Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain enlightening government records that otherwise would remain out of sight in government databases, filing cabinets or closets.

Sunshine Week also reminds us of the need for the press — and public at large — to continue pushing for more openness in government.

Too often, city or town councils and other local government bodies pull a curtain over their policy making by handling public business in executive session.

Under the law, such bodies are allowed to conduct closed executive sessions to discuss legal or personnel matters. But we all need to push against abuses of this clause.

We also must be mindful of government attempts to weaken public information laws.

In the past legislative session, one bill sought to end a requirement that Indiana counties publicly advertise in newspapers the tax-delinquent properties being sold at county commissioners' sales.

The Hoosier State Press Association — joined by this Editorial Board — pushed for a compromise that will keep the advertising requirement for first-time listings while also allowing counties to cut costs by not having to advertise repeat listings.

That fight was all about the public's right to know.

Under very similar circumstances, the Society of Professional Journalists and 43 other journalism organizations are publicly urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to continue publicizing Clean Air Act permits noting potential pollution in communities.

Newspapers still have one of the widest reaches of any information medium, and merely publishing such notices on government websites — as the EPA is proposing — would mean some folks likely wouldn't see the information.

It takes many public voices — not just ours — to maintain strong open records laws in our state and nation.

During Sunshine Week, please contact your state representatives, senators and congressional delegates to let them know how important these laws are to you.

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Members of The Times Editorial Board are Publisher Christopher T. White, Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase, Editor Bob Heisse, Politics/History Editor Doug Ross and Managing Editor Erin Orr.