We are indeed a nation of dissenters, a nation of citizens who find it their duty to question the the actions of our government and our leaders.
It’s ingrained in our national identity from the earliest days when our forefathers dumped tea into Boston Harbor to protest the Tea Act 1773; to telling those who attempt to trample our rights, “Don’t Tread on Me”; to the right to stand at our windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
(That’s a famous line from the movie, Network, by the way. Although, now you may get a noise violation citation if you try it.)
There’s something in us, as Americans, that doesn’t like people telling us what to do, and we have a healthy – some might say more than healthy – share of questioning authority.
Even when we are divided amongst ourselves, we are united in the innate belief that we have the right to question, to say, “What the heck is going on?”
So, while we celebrate many holidays and commemorate many of our triumphs and tragedies, there is one week that seemingly goes unnoticed every year.
And that’s a damn shame because it’s at the foundation of our democracy: The right to question our leaders and hear, in an open forum, what decisions they are making on our behalf.
This is Sunshine Week, the perennially unnoticed week when we celebrate our skeptical natures and reaffirm our belief in the importance of open government and access to information.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a Sunshine Week t-shirt. Or bobblehead. Or novelty mug. If it’s not marketable it must not be important, I guess?
Sunshine Week is a national initiative led by the News Leaders Association (formerly known as the American Society of News Editors) to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
It was established in March 2005 and occurs each year in mid-March, coinciding with James Madison’s birthday (our fourth president and the father of the Constitution) and National Freedom of Information Day on March 16.
Before any of you think, “Oh, there’s some liberal media agenda at work here,” that’s not the case. Sunshine Week is a non-partisan effort at the local, state and federal levels.
We all want transparent, accountable government.
And we should all be concerned about open government and support our tools to ensure it: the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Open Meetings Act.
Now, here in Orion it may not seem as much of an issue as it is on the state or national level. And here in Orion we may not go so far as to toss our craft beers into Lake Orion to protest (I know some of you right now are crossing yourselves and saying “God Forbid”), or stage a coup and try to topple Orion Twp. Hall (really, what would be the point – they let you walk right in).
Besides, hopefully we’re much more civil than that now, and I’ve had few problems getting information from Orion Twp., the Village of Lake Orion or Lake Orion schools. They’re actually pretty open with their information.
The biggest problem is that Freedom of Information requests lack teeth to enforce municipalities to comply. They are supposed to respond within 10 days of receiving the request: as we learned last year, they tend to take this time frame more as a ‘suggestion.’ And they don’t have to provide the information.
You can appeal, but then it ultimately leads to a costly legal fight.
Perhaps it may seem a little naïve, but I still believe in the ideology of the press and its role in keeping a free society informed; that a journalist’s purpose is to be a government watchdog and report what is, then let the people decide on what should be.
To be the first rough draft of history.
But Michigan’s current FOIA law has a glaring hole: the state legislature and governor are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
That is just wrong.
And before you think this is just a long rant, consider this: Michigan ranked dead last – 50th – in the nation in a 2015 investigation by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity. An F-grade in public access to information, an F in executive, legislative and judicial accountability, an F in lobbying disclosure, an F in state pension fund management, an F in ethics enforcement agencies.
The problem is it really hasn’t changed much since then.
So, what does this mean for the average citizen?
Get involved. Tell your elected officials that you want transparent government – and if you don’t want to go to the trouble of getting the information, then tell them you want to make sure that the press can access the information and share it with you.
For more information visit: www.publicintegrity.org, http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org, and https://michiganpress.org.