Public has duty to arm themselves with information

Monday, March 13, 2017

How much does the public need to know about the judicial system’s activities or where the government is using its tax dollars?

It’s an age-old battle but one that’s more important than ever as more and more information becomes too easily hidden behind a wall of governmental self-interest.

Print and electronic media are not a special class to be granted or denied access to documents that aren’t available to ordinary citizens, but they do have a special responsibility to be the eyes and ears of private citizens who can’t devote the time it takes to keep an eye on local, state and national governments.

March 12-18 is Sunshine Week, created by the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Too much information is kept from the public on flimsy or ill-advised justification based on misinterpretation of laws or legal threats.

We once had an out-of-town fire official inform us he couldn’t tell us where a fire was because of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) regulations.

Cooperation and openness of various law enforcement agencies range from a high degree to nonexistent.

The switch to electronic court records has created other problems, with paper records disappearing in an electronic fog. Through everything from mild cajoling to threatening legal action, we’ve achieved access to many records, but not to the extent we did before the switch from paper records.

As a reminder, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson’s summary for the state’s open public records law (Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-712) is “Except as otherwise expressly provided by statute, all citizens of this state and all other persons interested in the examination of the public records … are hereby fully empowered and authorized to (a) examine such records, and make memoranda, copies using their own copying or photocopying equipment … and abstracts therefrom, all free of charge, during the hours the respective offices may be kept open for the ordinary transaction of business and (b) except if federal copyright law otherwise provides, obtain copies of public records … during the hours the respective offices may be kept open for the ordinary transaction of business.”

The summary for public meetings: (Neb. Rev. Stat. § 84-1408.) That statute provides, “[i]t is hereby declared to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and may not be conducted in secret. Every meeting of a public body shall be open to the public in order that citizens may exercise their democratic privilege of attending and speaking at meetings of public bodies, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the State of Nebraska, federal statutes, and the Open Meetings Act.”

We’ve found most local governmental bodies to be careful to follow both laws, but the public should watch for overuse of “work sessions” or too many decisions resulting from subcommittee meetings without a full airing of the issues in open meetings.

Our representative republic requires full participating by its citizens, who, in the words of James Madison, must “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

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  • I do not disagree with the editorial calling on reduction of all taxes. That said, I do not recall people attending governmental meetings and asking for programs to be cut. Most often folks attend and ask for more services. Calling for less taxes is great but we need to also tell our officials where we want cuts.

    -- Posted by dennis on Wed, Mar 15, 2017, at 8:49 AM
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