John Q. Public has right to know

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By Barbara Rutledge

He wasn't getting into a "challenging" contest with an elephant. The context is not verbatim. I can't print what he really said here, but you get the idea.

He - head of a state department, whose salary is paid by taxpayers - was the challenger and I was the elephant. I have a prominent nose and I had gained some weight. But I decided not to take the comment personally.

I had asked for results of a state investigation of a local official. His response was he could not give me those results, according to guidelines. I went through the official guidelines and highlighted the requested information, which met the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) criteria. I also reminded him who he worked for.

He told me in a telephone conversation that he started writing me a multi-page letter, but stopped, threw the letter in his desk drawer and said he wasn't getting into the "contest" with me.

The story was completed and my deadline was near. It was a major story and lawyers for the S.C. Press Association and Landmark Newspapers Inc. had already approved it. The article was well-documented, yet this information would have been even more confirmation.

Sometimes you have to pick and choose your battles. And because we had everything we needed in the article, I chose not to continue the battle with him.

But it is sad to battle for public information, because freedom of information and open government should be synonymous. And because that is not always the case is why there is a need for Sunshine Week, which is March 16-22 this year. Sunshine Week puts a spotlight on open government and the First Amendment.

Presidential candidates are weighing in on their thoughts of open government during Sunshine Week:

- "To me, openness and accountability are not platitudes - they are essential elements of our democracy." - Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton

n The United States needs to "help connect government to its citizens and engage citizens in a democracy." - Sen. Barack Obama

n "A democratic government operates best in the disinfecting light of the public eye." - Sen. John McCain

Sometimes it is necessary to remind local officials about the open government format. Too often government officials adorn themselves in a veil of secrecy that is worn to conceal from the public what is going on behind closed doors.

Really, there should not be any closed doors. According to the FOIA, there are only two reasons officials can go into closed meetings, also called executive sessions - to discuss personnel issues and contractual matters. The term personnel is a catchall phrase officials often use to call an executive meeting. Voting in an executive session is also illegal. We have reiterated the FOIA rules to officials over the years.

As a newspaper we have challenged government bodies about some illegal issues. Included among them are contractual matters with a startup media company, SLED documents about a former law official, public works records, law enforcement policies and state inspections of bridges.

But citizens often have the misconception that the FOIA is just for the media. That is not true. John Q. Public has just as much right to access public record as do journalists. And John Q. Public has just as much responsibility to be educated about key issues. That education often involves information derived from public record.

Public records include real estate transactions, business permits, restaurant inspections, jury lists, foreclosures, crime incident reports, Department of Transportation safety reports, marriage licenses, divorces and tax information, just to list a few. This information is posted on some county's Web sites. Greenville is one county that posts public record. Lancaster County does not.

Government pay is also public record. Years ago, there was a pay issue concern about a former Lancaster County administrator. As a newspaper we decided to look at the salaries of other government officials.

We wrote a story and printed the names of those on the government payroll making $60,000 or more. The FOIA entitles the public to know the salaries of government employees.

And we got complaints - mostly from those whose names we listed.

But there is something you have to remember if you go to work for the government. You are a public employee, whose salary is paid by taxpayers, who have the right to know how much you are paid.

With the state of the economy it is important taxpayers know how government spends their money and hold it accountable.

Years ago, the S.C. Press Association adopted a resolution that goes: "It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner."

We agree.

Democracy will only survive in an open government with honest dialogue between officials and citizens.

Remove the veils, open the doors and let the sun shine.

Barbara Rutledge is editor of The Lancaster News.