Last week was Sunshine Week, a week dedicated to highlighting the importance of open meetings and open records in our democracy. With more and more restrictions being placed on us and the impact this is having on our economy and health, it’s even more critical that our government officials be open and transparent about the decisions they are making.
The public has the right to ask our government for records, to “show your work,” if you will. We have the right and opportunity to attend meetings and see them govern in action. Right now, we’re seeing the big picture of why that matters: lives and livelihoods are literally at stake.
Much has been made about how China did not tell the world about this virus long before it had begun to reach global impact and is likely still downplaying the number of deaths in that country. If you look today at the world map of infection the Johns Hopkins Institute is maintaining, you’ll see a large expanse of land with a tiny red dot. That’s Russia. Just about everywhere else on the map, red dots of infection cover countries. But somehow Russia, with more than 144.5 million people, is reporting less than 2,000 cases of COVID-19 and only nine deaths. Alabama, with a population of 4.8 million, has almost half as many reported cases and 13 deaths. North Korea, miraculously, says there hasn’t been a single person infected in that country.
Suppression of information can happen in China, Russia, North Korea and other countries because they don’t enjoy the freedom of information the United States guarantees in our Constitution. It’s not just “freedom of the press.” Anyone can request public information or go to a government meeting and fully expect to be admitted.
Sunshine laws aren’t only for the big events, either. They are there to provide us with information we need to evaluate the job our governments are doing on a day-to-day basis. It may seem mundane compared to global pandemics, but that routine business is our business and we have a right to know about it.
During this crisis, some governments may try to make the case to close up government to the people. This is exactly the opposite of what is needed. Governments are exercising levels of power many of us have never seen before, temporarily closing businesses, limiting the number of people who can gather, closing public spaces. We’re not arguing these measures aren’t necessary. We’re saying that power needs to be held accountable, and the only way to do that is to allow the public in to see how the decisions are being made and demand they “show their work.”
Over the next month, governmental bodies will have to decide how they’re going to continue to hold meetings under the current restrictions. Some, like the Cullman County Commission, will forgo meeting unless absolutely necessary. Others may use teleconferencing or video conferencing to conduct the people’s business. Still others, who find it necessary to meet in person, will hopefully find ways to incorporate social distancing into their gatherings, such as what Hanceville did last week when the council literally took its meeting out into the sunshine.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously observed that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And while it won’t work against the coronavirus, it’s exactly the preventative we need to control the spread of bad government.