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Editorial: Citizens lead way to light

Openness in government is a never-ending crusade, as we can see from the current controversy over the Easley administration’s liberal philosophy regarding the deletion of e-mails. That skirmish arose out of a newspaper’s investigations into the state’s botched attempt at mental health reform. But the battle for transparency in government extends beyond the news media, which has a responsibility to tell readers and viewers what’s going on in the world, to include private citizens as well.
To cite just one example: Although journalists sometimes invoke the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to government information, they’re responsible for only a fraction of the 2.5 million or so FOIA requests filed in a given year. Who files the rest? Academic researchers, advocacy groups, private businesses and individual citizens like you whose interests range from multimillion-dollar incentives packages to the minutes from a board meeting. Americans are concerned about openness and transparency at all levels of government, according to a survey commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for this year’s Sunshine Week, an annual effort by media organizations to draw attention to the public’s right to know.
The survey found that an overwhelming majority of Americans ó around 90 percent ó believe a candidate’s position on open government is important. That percentage holds true regardless of whether the candidate is running for president or Congress, or is seeking a slot on a local city council or school board. Clearly, the value of transparency in government cuts across all political and geographical jurisdictions.
The bad news is that the poll by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that almost three-quarters of Americans found the federal government closed and secretive and that the percentage that consider it “very secretive” has doubled to 44 percent from 22 percent in 2006. That’s not the direction federal agencies should take if they want to maintain the public’s trust. At the state and local level, the situation is somewhat brighter: 56 percent those polled felt their local government was open or somewhat open and 50 percent felt that way about the state government ó but that still leaves much room for improvement.
While such concerns receive special emphasis during Sunshine Week, they’re equally important throughout the other 51 weeks of the year. Whether it’s electronic communications stored on a computer’s hard drive or folders of paperwork stuffed into a file cabinet, citizens should have ready access to government information, short of jeopardizing national security or compromising sensitive personnel issues. Just as transparency builds trust, the appearance of secrecy incubates suspicion and cynicism. Citizens have a right to openness in governmentó and a responsibility to demand that their officials practice it.

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