Mary Duan here on this incredibly cold and cloudy and windy day that is, ironically, the start of Sunshine Week—so named after the iconic quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The greater meaning: shining light on the operation of the public’s business (local, state and federal governments) that use the public’s funds (tax dollars) is the best chance that we the people have at keeping the government honest.
Sunshine Week as an event was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now known as the News Leaders Association) as a way to promote open government. “It’s your right to know,” the association states. But fighting for transparency is by no means a battle that only news organizations can fight. On the federal level, people can avail themselves of the Freedom of Information Act to find documents. Anyone, for any reason or no reason at all, can file California Public Records Act requests if they’re trying to find information about city, county or state agencies.
At the Weekly, we are fans of the PRA. So far in 2021, I’ve filed about a dozen records requests, on every agency from the city of Salinas to the Sheriff’s Office, asking for, among other things, the complete list of finalists for the Salinas city manager’s job to the phone logs of a particular jail inmate to find out who that inmate’s been speaking to in the past year. You can PRA (yes, we use it as a verb) an elected official’s text messages, their emails or their browsing history done on any government computer. We don’t always get a timely response—I’m still waiting for the city manager information, for example, and the Sheriff’s Office responded that they’re working on my request but only after I nudged them a second time.
On March 18, in partnership with the First Amendment Coalition, the NLA will host a discussion on navigating barriers to public records and fighting for open government. As the event invitation points out, the pandemic meant that access to public information and public meetings became more challenging, with governments at all levels citing the pandemic for refusing to respond to records requests. The discussion will include news people from across the country speaking about how they successfully forced transparency during the pandemic year.
Later this week, my column will focus on the phenomenon of the reverse PRA, and how some agencies and individuals are using that method to keep records from the public’s eye.
In the meantime, the NLA is asking the public and the press to share experiences, success stories, FOIA battles, new laws and other efforts on behalf of open government. Tweet @SunshineWeek or use #SunshineWeek to share.