June 25 Editorial: Public has right to information

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ISSUE: Open government OUR VIEW: Keep it that way

By Sarah Reddoch

Gov. Steve Beshear recently announced that open government would be a priority in his administration and formed a task force to explore how to make that happen. Its goal is to create an Internet-based portal to “public information about state expenditures and state programs, such as contracts and broad spending categories such as higher education and health care.” In other words, the nuts and bolts of how taxpayers’ money is spent in Kentucky.

At about the same time, Trey Grayson, secretary of state, began posting his office’s expenditures online. And on this page in a column co-written with University of Kentucky Assistant Professor of Journalism Mike Farrell, Grayson expounded on the reasons why information should be readily available to the public. He made solid but familiar points.

How sad it is that Americans need to be reminded of that truth. It’s even sadder that sometimes the people must remind the government.

There have been many task forces on open government in many places. Policies are put in place, employees are trained, request forms are developed and personnel appointed to review requests for information. Unfortunately, these steps often make it more difficult to obtain information. They create a backward-running system.

With such a magnificent guide as the U.S. Constitution, who ever would have dreamed such a thing as the Freedom of Information Act would be needed?

These well-intended efforts to open government, unfortunately, also tend to perpetuate myths.

The first is the now-entrenched idea that the public must explain any request for information about their government. No justification is needed for any legal request.

The second myth is that open government is only a freedom of the press issue. True, media often file open records requests, but so do concerned citizens, business owners, government contractors and, frequently, candidates.

A third myth is that it’s all about the money. As we saw during the administration of Gov. Ernie Fletcher, how decisions are made are as important to review as what they cost.

In their column, Grayson and Farrell included this: “Accountability surely will make our public officials better stewards of public dollars.” Does that mean officials are less accountable for information not offered up for public review? Hardly.

We don’t dispute that it will be convenient and beneficial to have financial information available on the Web to all who seek it, nor do we dispute that there are valid reasons some information must be kept private. But everyone in government, whether elected or civil servant, must remember is that it is the public’s information. It should be government officials who file forms justifying each and every morsel withheld for whatever reason.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise editorial board.