James Madison once said, "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both."
He was a smart man, one of the founders of this nation, and a man who knew the power of information and the power held by those able to control it.
He knew that without an informed citizenry, any nation was doomed to fail its citizens.
It is no coincidence that Sunshine Week, an annual observance intended to raise awareness about the importance of open government, is held every year to coincide with Madison’s birthday, March 16. Madison, it could be said, is the father of open government.
Now, to a lot of people, this is seen as the work of a narrow interest, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which established the observance in 2005.
But it goes far beyond the interest of journalists and the media whose jobs require access to information. It goes, as Madison noted, to the heart of our democracy. The only way for this grand experiment in self-governing that we call America to survive and thrive is with a free flow of information, with an informed citizenry.
Yet, every year, it seems, it gets more and more difficult for citizens to find out what their government is doing on their behalf. For all of the lofty ideals, it is a very basic principle of democracy.
Open government means transparent government.
We’ve seen it at every level of government -- from the Pentagon Papers to the National Security Agency’s massive spy program to your township granting a zoning variance for the guy down the street who wants to raise llamas in a residential neighborhood.
You should have a say in these things.
You should be informed about them. You should be able to go to your representative, armed with information, and challenge them. It’s important whether you’re lobbying Congress on budget cuts or appearing before your local school board to question textbook purchases.
In Pennsylvania not long ago, the state Legislature revamped open records law. It was intended to make government more transparent and more responsive to requests for information.
It has, in some respects. But in others, it hasn’t. Similar to laws in other states, it has permitted local governments to throw up roadblocks and make it difficult to obtain information that should be readily available for all to review. There is no reason, in 2014, for local governments not to have repositories of documents, from police reports to correspondence related to decisions, posted online.
It is better than it used to be, when public officials guarded information as if it were their private property and anyone asking for it was akin to an identity thief. But we still have a long way to go.
So make an effort to become better informed about your government.
Go to a government meeting and ask questions.
Ask your public officials for documents that back up the assertions they make.
As Madison said, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
The man knew.
~York (Pa.) Daily Record