Open government advocates are observing March 14–20 as Sunshine Week, highlighting the role of journalists as watchdogs of the public’s “right to know.”
Almost every week, I attend government meetings intent on summarizing the actions for the benefit of informing the public. And more often than not, I get kicked out at some point as the body goes into closed session.
This used to be an uncommon occurrence, but it seems more and more that boards and commissions are finding reasons to go into closed session.
What then? I need to wait out the closed session, or make calls in the coming days to try and find out what happened.
There are good reasons for closed sessions—employee privacy or collective bargaining, for example.
But the increasing use of closed session and the inherently vague justification for closed sessions is troublesome.
It’s not that I suspect anything truly shady is happening. But closed session opens the door, so to speak, to the potential for mismanagement, corruption and our other worst fears about government.
The pandemic has only closed off government meetings further from the general public. This is justified for public health reasons.
But virtual meetings have been less than ideal due to the inevitability of tech issues. In one instance, I was left in the waiting room for more than 10 minutes of a government meeting on Zoom. Unintentionally, I’m sure, but it was the virtual equivalent of locking the door to the boardroom. Other journalists have written of similar experiences, more egregious than mine.
Open government should continue regardless, both during and after the pandemic.
What’s worse is that lawmakers in Madison are pushing to end requirements that public notices be printed in newspapers. For whatever perceived cost savings lie in this effort, government openness would be significantly reduced. Wisconsin newspapers provide a comprehensive picture of local government through reporting, print notices and the easily searchable database of Wisconsinpublicnotices.org.
Government at all levels can have a tendency to slip toward secrecy and misinformation. But, citizens should expect open government and nothing less.
The free press is a watchdog to open government, a fact we are reminded of now as we watch what’s happening in Myanmar and other nations not sustained by protections like we have in the First Amendment.
Let those in Madison remember the words of James Madison and beyond, whose birthday we celebrated on Tuesday, March 16: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”