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A Day Without Sunshine

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Government of the people, by the people and for the people should be done in front of the people to the greatest possible extent.

There isn't a citizen among us who, if asked, wouldn't come down in support of good government. We all want to know that our elected and appointed officials are conducting the people's business in an honest and respectable manner, according to all the rules of law and ethics. What we sometimes forget is that the only good government is an open government -- and that preserving that openness, via public information and public meetings laws, is our civic responsibility.

The people of Louisiana are fortunate in that our state possesses strong "sunshine laws." But just because such laws are enacted doesn't mean we can afford to rest easy. Compliance with these laws must be monitored and enforced, and someone must take it upon himself or herself to look down the road and foresee change.

The Baton Rouge-based watchdog group the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) is doing just that. A longtime champion of public awareness of -- and government compliance with -- these sunshine laws, PAR has added another formidable front to its good-government battle: the advent of e-government.

"The sunshine laws were written at a time when lawmakers did not anticipate what is essentially a shift to paperless government," says PAR president Jim Brandt. "As that becomes more and more prevalent in our society, I believe a reexamination of those laws is paramount."

As early as 1998, a prescient PAR was sounding the alarm that the increased use of technology in governmental processes might be chipping away at the citizenry's right to access. Developments in the most recent state legislative session proved them right; thankfully, PAR has redoubled its efforts and launched a 12-month study.

"In the last session, there were a number of assaults to the laws by attempting to add exceptions to them," Brandt says. "Video conferencing, emails, ability to access 911 audio tapes. Those measures failed, but it's obvious the issue itself isn't dead. They will come back."

PAR plans to be ready. The organization deserves public support in this worthiest of ventures. Conducting an exhaustive study determining the effects of technology on government -- and balancing one citizen's right to know against another's right to privacy -- is largely uncharted territory. Brandt says PAR is looking to similar organizations -- like the National Freedom of Information Coalition -- for information and direction.

Along those lines, the organization looks forward to partnering with the still-nascent Louisiana Coalition for Open Government. The brainchild of Loyola communications professor Sherry Lee Alexander, the coalition's focus recognizes the truth that knowledge is power. "Access to the system is crucial," Alexander says. "Or else we end up in some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare. The presumption is supposed to be openness."

We agree. And this isn't just about satisfying a press corps hungry for headlines. This is about the general public having a real and complete understanding of the ways in which the people's business is being conducted. Ordinary citizens and members of the media share an equal stake in the success of public information and open meetings laws.

One of the first actions of the coalition -- a collection of watchdog groups, attorneys, citizens and members of the media -- will be to establish a much-needed hotline for citizens who believe they have been denied access. A corollary endeavor will be to work with Attorney General Richard Ieyoub to publicize the sunshine laws. After all, government of the people, by the people and for the people should do its business in front of the people to the greatest possible extent.

It is an unfortunate reality that we cannot always count on our officials to do the right thing. The only way to be absolutely certain of their actions is to have a strong standard of accountability, and the only way to set that standard is to have access to pertinent information.

"It's everything," Brandt says. "Unless we have access to information about how government functions, we have no way of shaping policy. Independent, accurate, verifiable information is extremely important to [PAR's] work and to an informed citizenry."

None of this is to say that the onus of access lies solely with the institutions of our government. Democracy is by definition participatory, and the burden is on all of us. Earlier PAR studies have found a disheartening lack of awareness among citizens as well as officials with regard to the requirements of the Louisiana sunshine laws. None of us can afford to remain ignorant of this matter. Nor can we allow the information superhighway and all its accoutrements to detour the cause.

It's time to take discussion of the sunshine laws out of the shadows. Our chance to have good government depends on it.

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