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Walking on Sunshine

This week (March 13-19) is Sunshine Week, an initiative to promote open government and freedom of information. March 16, this Wednesday, is National FOI Day – and that day was chosen because it is James Madison’s birthday.

The week is spearheaded by the National Society of News Editors and underwritten by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Sunshine Week got started in 2002 in the Sunshine State, when the Florida news editors society banded together to fight efforts to create scores of exemptions to that state’s public records laws. Several other states followed suit in 2003; the ASNE went national with a sunshine celebration two years later.

Here in the Old Dominion, the Virginia Press Association and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government fight the good fight, and they were busy as usual during the 2011 General Assembly session.

According to the VPA website, there were at least 33 different bills relating to public access to government that were introduced during the session.

The VPA noted one of the bills it supported, House Bill 1457, will double the civil penalties for a willful violation of the Freedom of Information Act by government employees. The bill made it through both houses and awaits the governor’s signature.

And a number of bills that would have exempted various state agencies’ work from the purview of FOIA were killed in committee.

As part of Sunshine Week, the ASNE honors “Local Heroes” who fight for access and little-guy rights. The overall national winner was a woman in Miramar Beach, Fla., who filed a lawsuit against local officials and forced them to handle public records differently.

But Virginia can lay claim to the third-place finishers. A Waynesboro couple, Phil and Ellen Winter, took the bronze for their effort to straighten out practices in the city treasurer’s office. According to Sunshine Week officials, they noticed their property tax check had not been deposited promptly.

They then gathered reams of government documents that showed the treasurer had allegedly mishandled city and state money. They went to the local newspaper and shared their research. The treasurer lost his bid for reelection last fall.

Sunshine Week is a newspaper industry effort to insure that information remains free. The Society for Professional Journalists, for example, is a big promoter of the week and of FOIA education in general.

But this isn’t just inside baseball and an example of how journalists pat each other on the back so they can feel good. Far from it. The week highlights how the fourth estate can keep government honest and the citizens informed.

It was Thomas Jefferson who once famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Go to these two sites for a lot of information and resources: www.sunshineweek.org, maintained by the ASNE, and www.spj.org, the home site of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Let the sun shine.

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