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Larry Lough

Clash over open government? We’re there

No, it is not a coincidence that national Sunshine Week is kicked off on the day the nation switches to daylight saving time.

What better time to call attention to the need for more light on the functions of government?

Yes, 20th century writer/philosopher John Dewey did note that it is difficult to interest the public in the public interest.

But we must continue the effort.

Especially around here.

THIS PAST YEAR has been a mixed bag, open government-wise, in the Sauk Valley.

Eleven months ago in Dixon, we were presented with the perfect example of why the workings of government need to be open and transparent. A $54 million fraud perpetrated over two decades is a sobering reminder.

On the other hand, at this time last year we were gearing up to provide readers with photographs and video from local courtrooms under a new pilot program approved by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Citizens – including those in the press – must be ever vigilant and unwavering in the pursuit of public information.

That means we must, as urged by the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, “ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.”

Somehow, that’s never as easy as it sounds.

THIS NEWSPAPER had several clashes over open government during the past year.

We took up the cause of an inmate at the Dixon Correctional Center whose requests for public records were denied by the Illinois Department of Correction.

Our position didn’t sit well with some prison guards – public employees who think information about disciplinary action at the state institution is not the public’s business.

We await an opinion from the state attorney general on that one.

The AG’s office also is due to weigh in on our complaint about a private “caucus” that Whiteside County Board Democrats conducted to, essentially, choose a new chairman.

Our several protests about the Sterling School Board’s refusal to release a teachers contract agreement it had already approved led one reader to write a letter scolding us for “pestering” the board.

After we were critical of Dixon Mayor Jim Burke for not revealing the name of a law firm he was going to recommend be hired for civil litigation in the Rita Crundwell case, he paid us a visit to tell us we were making too big a deal of his reticence.

We expect a few open government clashes in the coming year, too.

And the one after that.

You get the idea.

MAYBE YOU READ reporter Derek Barichello’s front-page column this week, when he asked about allowing the public to attend contract negotiation sessions related to the Dixon teachers strike.

That is the kind of transparency that newspapers promote.

School board attorney Stan Eisenhammer laughed off the idea, saying the public would find those bargaining meetings to be “boring.”

And he raised the same issues that some judges and lawyers used to raise about allowing cameras in a criminal courtroom: the participants might “play” to the public (or the camera), the public might not understand what is going on, etc., etc.

As Derek’s column pointed out, teacher contract negotiations are open to the public in Florida, and no problems are apparent.

Illinois law allows bargaining sessions to be closed to the public, but it does not require such secret proceedings.

What public scrutiny would do is expose the game-playing that is inherent in collective bargaining, which might bring public pressure on both sides to moderate the extreme positions they carry to the table.

Before they went on strike last week, Dixon teachers had worked more than 6 months without a contract.

Could a public process of negotiations have done worse?

JUST AS PUBLIC access laws are not media laws, Sunshine Week is not a media event. At least, it doesn’t have to be.

Yes, easy access to meetings and records makes our job easier.

But it makes your government better, too.

Since the American Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Week in 2005, participants have included a wide range of people who are interested in good government.

According to ASNE, that includes folks from “print, broadcast and digital media outlets; government officials at all levels; schools and universities; non-profit and civic organizations; libraries and archivists; and interested individuals.”

We urge you to become better aware of your rights, and public officials’ responsibilities, regarding open government.

After all, the reporters and editors at your newspaper can use all the help they can get.

Clash over open government? We’re there shaw-push-component-1