Running around the house yesterday, looking frantically for the directions to set my clock radio forward to Daylight Saving Time, I thought about how stupid it is to have to go through this twice a year. Why not just go on daylight saving time year-round and call it, er, a day. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has introduced legislation to preserve the daylight saving shift and never set clocks back again. That’s fine by me. As soon as spring rolls around, I’m already worried about the few months left until the days start getting shorter again. I’m much happier when sunlight goes into the evening. The only thing good about the semi-annual change of time is that it reminds us to check the batteries in smoke detectors. I think we can figure out a substitute prompt.
The onset of Daylight Saving Time signals a much more important issue. Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, the creation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to call attention to the need for greater accountability by government through public records disclosure. Sunshine – transparency, that is – is said to be the greatest disinfectant.
Cue the refrain of Aquarius by The Fifth Dimension, “let the sun shine, let the sun shine, the sun shine in.” Consider it the anthem for this Sunshine Week. Examples abound of how government at all levels routinely confounds people with legitimate requests for government documents. Government stonewalls in many ways, from claiming the documents aren’t available, to creating enough loopholes and exemptions to public access requirements to make the Freedom of Information Act meaningless, to charging so much per page that dissemination is prohibitive, to redacting allegedly sensitive information on documents so that the pages you eventually receive are virtually all blacked out.
News media can’t play their rightful role in aiding the public’s right to know, and we can’t be a responsible citizenry without better access to public information. That will require a substantial reduction in obfuscation, obstacles, and other government displays of officious passive-aggressive behavior.
This principle will be tested at the federal level when the Robert Mueller report is complete, and the special counsel turns it over to Attorney General William Barr. While Barr gave lip service to transparency in his confirmation hearings, he has not committed to making the report public. The Democrats will fight tooth and nail to make it happen, and well they should.
Regulations call only for a confidential report from Mueller to the AG. Worst case scenario would be for Barr only to indicate an intention to indict or not to indict. But, given the core focus of Mueller’s mission to ferret out the nature of the relationship between Russia and the President and his 2016 campaign, the special counsel’s findings will bear directly on whether or not our democratic process has been compromised. Put simply, the public needs to know the answers to that question.
Barr may not be required to make the report public, but he is allowed to do so if he deems it in the public interest. His answers, when repeatedly pressed about whether he’d go public with the report, restated his desire for as much transparency within the constraints of the law. Pretty opaque language, and not especially reassuring.
All tiers of government have track records of making it difficult for people seeking public disclosure. Supposedly enlightened Massachusetts has traditionally led the nation in resistance to transparency. It wasn’t until 2017 that the Bay State overhauled its 1973 public records law providing penalties for agencies that failed to respond to Freedom of Information requests in a timely way. So, too, did it mandate that more public records be available online, and it limited how much agencies could charge for copies.
In the spirit of this Sunshine Week, let’s hope that, from the Bay State to the marble halls of Washington, whether on Daylight Saving or Eastern Standard time, our elected and appointed officials provide us with the records and reports we need to make informed judgments about how our democracy is working and what is needed to make it work better.
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