Open Government Means Informed Citizenry

Op-ed from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

By Betsy Z. Russell

When residents of U.S. Highway 12 started hearing rumors about giant megaloads rolling past their homes, they found out what was really going on by filing public records requests.

When a state senator wouldn’t talk about his DUI arrest after he was found in a stolen jacknifed SUV and trailer, the public records did the talking for him, and the whole story came out.

When new legislative district lines were drawn this year, public records requests yielded information that showed people what direct impact the new lines would have on their representation: Which incumbents landed in the same districts and would have to face off for a chance to remain in office.

And reporters around the state have been combing through thousands of public records about the former University of Idaho professor, Ernesto Bustamante, who shot a graduate student to death and then killed himself, trying to help people make sense of how it happened and how the university dealt with the events leading up to the tragedy.

All these things were possible because laws protect citizens’ rights to know what’s going on in the government they fund with their tax dollars and participate in with their votes. In Idaho, the Idaho Open Meeting Law and Idaho Public Records Law play key roles in ensuring that our government remains open to us. Best case: An open government, supervised by an informed and engaged citizenry. That’s how we get government of, by and for the people.

All are invited to a one-day symposium on Nov. 9 entitled “Open Access: Citizens, Media & Government,” sponsored by the University of Idaho School of Journalism and Mass Media, with support from the McClure Center for Public Policy Research and the Society of Professional Journalists.

A new documentary film by UI students Hans Guske and Ilya Pinchuck, “Fighting Goliath: Megaloads & the Power of Protest,” will debut at 3 p.m.; a panel including megaloads opponents Lin Laughy and Borg Hendrickson, Lewiston Tribune reporter William Spence and myself will discuss “In the Sunshine: Holding Government Accountable” from 4-5 p.m.; and I’ll give a lecture entitled “Open Government: Why it Matters” at 7 p.m. in Room 106 of the Iddings Agricultural Sciences Building on the corner of Rayburn and Sixth streets; a reception will follow.

There’s more: In December, Idahoans for Openness in Government, known as IDOG, will bring Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to town for a seminar on exactly what is, and isn’t, covered by the open meeting and public records laws and how everyone can comply with them. That seminar, co-sponsored by this newspaper, will be Dec. 7 from 6-8:30 p.m. at Moscow City Hall in the city council chambers; like the UI’s symposium, it is free and open to the public. Local and state government officials and their staffers, reporters, and interested citizens all are invited.

Sure, as a reporter who covers state government, open government makes it easier – possible, really – for me to do my job. But it also does more than that: It enables all of us to be informed, effective participants in what happens in our public life – and that matters.

Betsy Z. Russell is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review, and is president of the Idaho Press Club and president and a founding board member of IDOG.

Op-ed from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

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