Government secrecy often breeds corruption within and mistrust from the public. But of course, this is America, and we have laws protecting our right to know what our various governments — local, state and federal — are doing.
This week is Sunshine Week, a celebration of our access to public information. In 2005, the American Society of Newspaper Editors started Sunshine Week to get people across the nation talking about the laws that protect our access to information. Sunshine Week always falls on the week of March 16, which was the birthday of the fourth president, James Madison, who wrote the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
On a near-daily basis, journalists across the nation hold accountable government officials, agencies, staff and so on. Laws creating public record dissemination and open meetings allow for access to much of the information needed to hold government accountable. An understanding of the laws that keep government open is beneficial to the general public, too.
Alaska’s Open Meeting Act, for example, requires a governing body such as the Fairbanks City Council or Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly to give sufficient notice of when meetings are held. This law is also what guarantees us the right to attend these meetings and watch the legislative process. The council or assembly can enter into a closed executive session to discuss things such as litigation but only when the purpose of the session is clearly defined.
Although the internet allows for a trove of information, documents, court records and audio recordings to be posted on government websites, you may one day want to access information that is not readily available, such as a contract or communications between government officials. Alaska law requires information requests to be processed within 10 business days, though there are some restrictions, such as tax information that would disclose a business’s proprietary information.
At the city and borough level, a person can go to the clerk’s office to request records. Oftentimes, the more specific the request, the easier it is for staff to find the records you are looking for. A records request could cost money. If it takes more than five hours for staff to track down the records requested, a fee can be levied. Hard copies may result in an additional fee. For example, at Fairbanks City Hall, it costs $1 for the first page of records printed and $0.25 for each additional page.
There are more exceptions to which records can be obtained through a request. For example, the Freedom of Information Act, which is what guarantees that a member of the public can access federal government records does not allow a person to obtain classified information due to national defense purposes. To learn more about the Freedom of Information Act, go to Foia.gov.
Sunshine Week should be a reminder to everyone that open and honest governments require accountability, and everyone has the ability to take part in the process.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, March 14