Others’ Opinion: Don’t let technology cloud the sunshine

Published 9:32 am Monday, March 16, 2015

St. Cloud Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

This week marks the 10th annual Sunshine Week, seven days meant to increase awareness of the public’s right to know what its government officials are doing and to easily access public records.

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Yet striving for open government seems to get harder by the day. In particular, advancements in technology coupled with a desire for secrecy are raising a host of challenging questions.

Witness the battle to gain access to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s emails from when she served as secretary of state.

Also, as noted in a Sunday commentary by Gary Pruitt, head of The Associated Press, officials in Ferguson, Missouri, billed the AP $135 an hour to retrieve emails from a handful of accounts about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Closer to home, there are intense legislative debates about the use of high-tech license plate readers. Should police be allowed to use them to randomly collect personal data and retain that information for no obvious reason? Similarly, discussions about police wearing body cameras are triggering debates about what footage to make public.

Not to be overlooked locally, it took the threat of legal action to force the Cold Spring City Council in July to make public some audio tapes of two council meetings that state officials already had ruled were improperly closed.

These are just a few of many examples the past year that highlight not just some officials’ desire for secrecy, but how difficult it can be for rank-and-file citizens to access government records in an era of rapidly growing technology.

That shouldn’t be the way a government elected, paid for and run by its citizens operates. It’s also why Sunshine Week originated — to enlighten and empower Americans to take an active role in their government. From township boards to the White House, involvement from citizens along with transparency and access are the building blocks to a better community and country.

In Minnesota, the state Data Practices Act sets the tone under the philosophy that all government data are presumed public. Certainly, there are exceptions. Still, anyone can have public data for any reason, and requests for it must be met in a timely manner and unaccompanied by exorbitant fees or charges.

Minnesotans need to take those words to heart — not just this week, but every day, all year long.

About Sunshine Week

For information about Sunshine Week and how you can improve government transparency, visit http://bit.ly/1L89enP.