Whatever the weather in Kansas this week, it’s time to remind local governments to operate in sunshine.
Sunshine Week, March 10-16, is an effort by the American Society of News Editors, the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press and other organizations — including the Kansas Press Association — to promote open government and the need for citizens to remain vigilant.
Too often, public bodies hide their work to camouflage who has influence and who doesn’t when it comes to government business. Open meetings and open records laws, along with persistent journalists, are meant to ensure that elected officials do the people’s business out in the open.
In Wichita, the annual commemoration couldn’t be timelier.
City Council members are weighing a plan to sell public land to a Minor League Baseball team as part of a package to lure the franchise to town. Details of the proposal were first reported by The Eagle just days before a scheduled vote, which spurred members of the public to raise questions and seek more information.
Council members smartly delayed the vote, and Mayor Jeff Longwell acknowledged that he “could have been more transparent” that a deal was in the works.
In this case, like too many others, public officials offer a myriad of excuses for why they operate in private. Longwell said he kept quiet because of Minor League Baseball rules, but after it was announced last fall that the team planned to move to Wichita, the mayor should have mentioned that public land was part of the deal.
City officials held a social media town hall to answer questions about the ballpark development, but face-to-face meetings with media or the public remain elusive. With a vote scheduled in less than a week, we still don’t know who’s on the team of investors that plans to develop the riverfront land.
The Wichita City Council isn’t the only concern.
In past months, Sedgwick County commissioners have accused each other of improper negotiations and backroom dealing. Wichita school board members conducted an eight-day private session to interview candidates for superintendent. And a student fee committee at Wichita State University did not allow reporters — including student journalists — to observe its deliberations.
Perhaps public officials consider such oversight a nuisance. No doubt it’s easier to hash out plans in private. If only the meddlesome media and prying public would stay out of the way.
But that’s not how democracy works.
Our system is designed so that an independent press, with freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, can ask questions, demand answers, and hold government officials accountable for their actions. Everyone — not just the news media — should have access to public meetings and public records.
Democracy requires openness, and we all must work to protect it.