Our View: Make your right to know an issue for candidates

From the Idaho Statesman

Looking for a landslide winner in a divisive political year? We nominate openness in government.

A new nationwide survey, conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, demonstrates an overwhelming interest in open government – at all levels of government:

Eighty-seven percent of respondents say a presidential candidate’s position on open government is either very important or somewhat important.

For congressional candidates, it’s 88 percent.

For state candidates, it’s 92 percent.

At the city council or school board level, it’s 91 percent.

This was a survey of 1,012 American adults from all walks of life – people who are, we hope, voters a lot like you.

These survey results are something to celebrate, as media groups join together this week to mark Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of the importance of open government. The public’s right to know clearly is not some vestigial phrase from our high school government classes, memorized for a quiz but soon forgotten. It is a core value, treasured by all consumers of government.

No surprise there. Open meetings and open records laws are not just “media” laws. They belong to us all – and can be used by any of us.

When disgruntled bicyclist Gary Segers wanted to know why a stretch of Garden City’s Greenbelt was open only to walkers, he used public documents to piece together a convoluted history. Public records indicate that the state always intended for the riverside path to accommodate walkers and bikers.

When curious voters want to know who supports their local legislator – either with a cash campaign donation or the “in-kind” contribution of a flight on a private corporate plane – they can turn to campaign finance reports for the information.

When Eagle residents were alarmed about the size of planned communities proposed for the pristine Foothills north of their city, they showed up to speak their mind.

City leaders listened – and ultimately, they also heard. After 36 public meetings on the M3 planned community, the City Council scaled back the project from 13,720 homes to 7,153 homes.

Government doesn’t work fastest when it works in the open; ask anyone in Eagle.

But it does work best when it works in public view.

That’s why media groups objected after a closed State Board of Education meeting in December; during the meeting, board members discussed the future of a standardized test for ninth-graders. The fate of the Idaho Standards and Achievement Test, a graduation requirement for Idaho 10th-graders, is clearly in the public interest.

By discussing the ISAT in closed meeting – even briefly – the board might have unknowingly violated state Open Meeting Law, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said last month.

Compliance with open meetings law and open records law isn’t just a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. It is a matter of keeping the public informed, and nothing less.

On open government issues, the American public and the media seem of one mind: passionate but skeptical. Americans want to elect candidates who are committed to openness, the Scripps Howard-Ohio University survey shows.

But the survey also delivered a stinging critique of the outgoing Bush administration: A whopping 74 percent of respondents said the federal government is “somewhat secretive” or “very secretive.”

At least Americans can do something about this, one vote at a time. They elect a new president in November.

In Idaho, voters get to elect a new U.S. senator and two House members. At the state and local levels, Idahoans also will elect 105 legislators and dozens of county officials.

So if you care about your right to know, ask your candidates where they stand.

If you want to demand openness in government, start by demanding it from your candidates.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, e-mail editorial@idahostatesman.com.

From the Idaho Statesman

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