2018-03-11 / Editorial

Let the sun shine on government

This week is Sunshine Week (March 11-17), the annual celebration to promote openness and transparency for all levels of government. Sunshine Week was started 13 years ago by American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to promote our country’s First Amendment Freedom of the Press rights in general, and, in particular, Open Meeting and Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) and other laws that keep our government’s business in the open — in the sunshine.

Sunshine Week is our free press’s celebration of a commitment to openness and transparency, especially relating to government records.

Many newspapers, The County Press included, go to court regularly to give the public access to records or information that government would rather suppress or keep secret. We also regularly go to local units of government with requests, made under state public records and open meetings laws, for documents and records of government actions. Shining a light into the shadows of government documents and business is what a free press should be about.

Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.

Although journalists often use FOIA as an important reporting tool, investigative reporters aren’t the only ones that can use the law. Lapeer County citizens have the same right as the press does to access information from local government.

There is no required format for writing a FOIA request, however, your request should include:

• An introductory sentence identifying the letter as a FOIA request and citing the law, such as: “This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act, as amended, 5 U.S.C. 552 et seq.”

• A description of the records you are seeking. This needs to be as precise and concise as possible. In other words, don’t be long-winded, but make sure you provide as much detail as possible to allow the agency to zero in on what you are seeking, including a description of the general topic, the names of people and places, and the dates involved.

• A request for a fee waiver. For most requesters, agencies can require the prepayment of fees to cover the costs of searching for and copying the records.

• A statement of the amount of copying fees you are willing to pay. The agency can require you to pre-pay any search and copying fees before handing over the records. The FOIA officer handling your request generally will contact you and let you know the estimated amount of fees and ask whether you want to continue with the request

• After you file your request, be sure to follow up with periodic phone calls or emails to the agency’s FOIA office to check on the status of your request. Keep a log of those calls or copies of the emails just in case you need to refer to them in an administrative appeal or lawsuit.

The County Press, on your behalf, is committed to the principle of access and is an aggressive advocate of transparency and accountability in government.

FOIA requests have resulted in important stories (see front of INSIGHT section) that Lapeer County citizens would otherwise not have known.

It is our fundamental belief that public officials need to be accountable to the people they serve, and that the public has a right to witness government in action.

FOIA ensures that parents can review the qualifications of teachers in their school system so they know that qualified teachers are being hired without regard to race or gender. FOIA ensures that the police blotter is always available so that citizens can be warned that car thefts are occurring in their neighborhood.

The Open Meetings Act and FOIA are important in a democracy that is of the people, by the people and for the people. That’s why you should care.

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