Sunshine Week: Legislation clearly helps transparency

Georgia will move closer to its ideal of open governance if HB 397, which passed last week in the House, is approved in the Senate and becomes law.

It is a central tenet of our government that, to the greatest extent practicable, the people’s business should be conducted within plain view of the governed. Routine, overreaching secrecy conflicts with the public interest and has no place in America, its statehouses and town halls.

Any exemptions from the robust pursuit of open governance should be well-grounded in common-sense sentiment and drafted as narrowly as possible.

Georgia will move closer to that ideal if a bill passed by the House last week is likewise approved in the Senate and becomes law. That should happen this session. The legislation is not perfect, but it’s rarely been more appropriate than here to cite the old saying that we cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

House Bill 397’s 41 dense pages, at this point, represent a sound, workable balance of interests that tend to clash. It is the product of multiple revisions that served to improve some things while not giving in to the desire in some quarters to make it easier for government officials to unnecessarily keep secrets from the public. To say serving the cause of good government in this regard is a difficult challenge is an understatement.

Considerable credit is due Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, who’s championed reform of the state’s open government laws. Ditto for state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who sponsored HB 397. Powell was wise to position the legislation so that it could not be altered after it moved from committee to the House floor.

Now, it’s up to the Georgia Senate to quickly do its part. As the state’s chief legal officer, Olens should keep close watch on the bill’s progress in the waning days of the legislative session. If lawmakers move to damage what’s now a solidly worthwhile piece of law, Olens should not hesitate to withdraw his support.

That drastic action should not become necessary. Senators should build on the work of the House and pass the bill without alteration, avoiding any temptation to tinker, water down or otherwise change legislation that’s been carefully wordsmithed by experts on both sides of the open government debate. Senate leadership can help in this worthy cause by protecting the bill from amendments.

That would be the best homage lawmakers could pay toward National Sunshine Week, which begins today. Named after so-called “Sunshine” laws intended to keep government business out in the open, the week is intended as a recognition of a cherished civic ideal that’s in the best interests of all of us.

In a representative democracy, the people’s business should be open and accessible to all who take an interest in public affairs. It is often those in the news media who press hard for access to public records, filing freedom of information requests and the like, to the consternation of many so-called public servants. Elsewhere in today’s AJC, you’ll find examples of how we’ve used the Georgia Open Records Act to push for details of the public’s business that, in many cases, bureaucrats and elected officials would have preferred to keep secret.

That’s our job — and yours too, we’d suggest. Sunshine laws are not crafted first and foremost to serve journalism’s interest. In our role as public watchdogs, we simply act using tools that are available to any interested citizen. That’s as it should be in a free society. The cause of open government should be claimed by all of us, since public-sector actions affect us all.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

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