The Sunlight Foundation, founded in 2006, takes its name from the famous quote of Justice Louis Brandeis, who said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
In researching the context of that quote, Andrew Berger, an intern at the Sunlight Foundation, found that Justice Brandeis, a Boston native, believed that what we now call ‘open government’ played a critical role in exposing the corruption rampant in Boston at the time. He pushed, for example, for the City to make public its payroll, in an effort to expose patronage jobs that were common at the time. He believed too that, “”the individual citizen must in some way collect and spread the information.”
The thought behind Sunlight Foundation is that the more transparent government is, the more involved citizens will be in their government. In last summer’s Primary Election in Maryland, here in Montgomery County, less than 17 percent of registered voters went to the polls. The rest voted with their feet, a resounding vote for ‘none of the above.’ The thought is, if the actions of government are available and visible to all, there would be less ‘none of the above.’ And more involvement. Will it work? Frankly we don’t know but opening up government through the #opengov movement is a start and a way to find out.
To focus more closely on open, transparent government, and an involved citizenry, Sunshine Week takes an entire week to celebrate government transparency.
There are celebrations and activities across the country, in states, counties, and municipalities, from the Florida Society of News editors, who plan, according to the Sunshine Week website, to “launch a package of Sunshine Week stories — including local and state audits, access to electronic court records, threats to open government in Florida, the state of “gotcha” requests and legislation, local FOI heroes, and more;” to the Town of Carolina Shores, North Carolina, which plans to hold an open house at the Town Hall, “during which the public can tour government offices and learn more about access and freedom of information.”
Here in Washington, the Newseum will hold its annual ‘FOI’ day; and Federal government agencies will also participate, including the Department of Justice; and the Department of Health and Human Services, which will hold a workshop on how to craft your Freedom of Information request. The Census Bureau also plans to hold a discussion on the importance of Open Government, at its Suitland, MD offices, on March 18th.
As for Montgomery County, well, again, not so much. Embarrassingly, Montgomery County does not recognize Sunshine Week. No talk of transparent government here, the place where (we believe) the Board of Education regularly violates the Maryland Open meetings Act, and (we believe) elected and appointed officials use their private personal and work emails to manipulate the public’s county government business.
The Civic Fed has repeatedly requested that our councilmembers put their business calendars online and make them open and visible. The answer is no. Of course, you can get them, as they are public information. All you have to do is file a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request and wait 30 days. Or, just come on down to their Rockville offices to take a look. Open government? No. Embarrassed government? Yes.
Here at the Civic Fed we are pushing for webcast, streamed meetings of our Delegates in Annapolis. In conversations with members of our Montgomery County Delegation, asking for meetings to be open and streamed, this is what we have heard in response: ‘The rooms aren’t set up for that.’ ‘The technology is old.’ ‘Our laptops are old and don’t have built-in cameras.’ And our personal favorite, ‘Anyone can come down to Annapolis and watch our meetings.’ You’d think our delegates would be embarrassed to voice these tired excuses, but no, they appear to be sincere.
(Most legislative committee meetings are videotaped)
We have had some luck this past year in opening up our government. The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission now streams its meetings. The Montgomery County Board of Education, thanks to the persistence of Parents’ Coalition members Janis Sartucci and Danuta Wilson, now stream their committee meetings. These are rare improvements over the closed, embarrassing system we Marylanders have now.
This coming year we will be working again with the Sunlight Foundation, to open up our county and state government. We hope you will join us.