Let the sun shine

March 13, 2005

A GOVERNMENT that is of the people, by the people and for the people allows those same people to view its workings -- as a matter of democracy and accountability. That's part of the underpinning for an effort this week by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to encourage open government, through more public meetings and greater accessibility by citizens to government information. The effort is called Sunshine Week, to shed light on the need to allow more access and provide more government scrutiny.

Anyone who wants to understand the need for more sunshine need only look at Maryland right now. According to an ongoing project by the University of Florida that ranks the openness of state governments, Maryland is only in the middle of the pack. We're well below top-ranked North Carolina and Florida, as well as neighboring Washington, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The study looks generally at the ease of requesting public records, including how much documentation or identification is needed to gain access to records, how steep the costs are to copy documents, what records are available by computer and how willing the state is to edit confidential information so that documents can still be released for nonconfidential purposes. While Maryland was rated average in many categories, it fell down in areas such as the ease of copying records and the limited hours that the public could access records through some agencies.

Beyond the mechanics of allowing citizen access to government information, Maryland unfortunately provides another example of a broader government crackdown on journalists. The ban by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that prevents state employees from talking to a reporter and a columnist for The Sun because of allegedly biased reporting is designed to keep citizens in the dark. It should be remembered that the ban was imposed in connection with reports of a sweetheart land deal that the administration was trying to push through. And Mr. Ehrlich has said that he meant to cast a chill on media coverage of his administration.

Thus far, a federal district judge has let him get away with such tactics, ignoring that the press often serves as a kind of proxy for other citizens. That's why it's essential for all citizens to have the right to access their government through meetings, records and other sources of information. This week is a good time for citizens and public officials in Maryland -- and across the country -- to become more active in making that happen.

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