Democracy messy, but sunshine laws help


Moving resolutely toward spring, we note a benchmark: It is once again Sunshine Week.

Each year, we salute sunshine laws, known also as Freedom of Information laws in Arkansas that cover open records and meetings. These are the laws that protect the public’s right to know what their elected officials are doing and, just as importantly, how they are spending public money.

Representative democracy is built on the “consent of the governed,” and that means citizens need the opportunity to inform themselves on what the Legislature or the city council or the quorum court is doing.

In practice, of course, people really can’t get to all the meetings governing bodies hold. Thus reporters are dispatched to observe what happens and present the information to citizens who wish to inform themselves.

That’s the open meetings part of sunshine laws, the part people hear about most and the part that’s easier to understand. In Arkansas, with a reasonable number of exceptions, gatherings of elected officials at which the public’s business is discussed are open to the public or to the public’s representatives.

Sometimes elected officials complain that “meeting” is too vague a term, but it’s generally pretty clear. If a couple of elected officials from a particular governmental body happen upon each other and pass the time of day talking about the weather or the Razorbacks, that’s not a meeting, and no one begrudges their conversation. If they let their talk drift into matters like what to do with a tax shortfall or a rezoning request, that’s a meeting, and they have failed to notify the public.

The open records part of Freedom of Information laws can be trickier because there are more variables. Who is the custodian of a record? Is the record available, “in use” or “in storage”? What is a fair is amount to charge for photocopies? What information must always be redacted? What information is redacted under certain circumstances but left visible under other circumstances? The custodian of the record can get into hot water as easily for releasing too much information as too little. But citizens have the right to know why a public employee was fired or what anyone paid with tax dollars earns. So officials and citizens work through issues as they go.

Democracy is such a messy thing. It’s inconvenient for those who would like to run government like a business; it’s inconvenient for those who want things to be black and white; it’s inconvenient for those with the best of intentions. But it’s also inconvenient for those who have less than the best of intentions, for those who want to advance their status or enrich their treasure chests, for those who seek the shadows because it’s not the people’s business they are conducting but their own.

That’s why we have sunshine laws, to protect the people and the public officials who serve them in exemplary ways. So no matter what battles were fought in the preceding year, we celebrate Sunshine Week annually. It’s just one more way we celebrate democracy itself as well as the particular flavor of democracy we call the United States.