Government is big business, probably the biggest business in the nation. Just as businesses are beholden to stockholders, the government is beholden to its stakeholders – us, the citizens.
Sunshine Week is being celebrated by news organizations throughout the country this week. It coincides with March 16, the birthday of the man who wrote the Bill of Rights, President James Madison.
Sunshine Week is not a celebration of the pending spring, but a time to highlight the importance of government transparency and the light all citizens are empowered to shine on our elected officials' and government officers' activities.
The federal Freedom of Information Act, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website, took effect in 1967, ensuring that “any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records,” though there are special exemptions to the law. Maryland has the similar Public Information Act for local and state government.
Maryland also has the Open Meetings Act, which grants the right of public observation of government proceedings. It, like FOIA, has exceptions.
A historic example of FOIA's need comes from New York City about 100 years before the law's passage. Corruption was rampant in the city's government, which was controlled by the Tammany Hall political organization and its leader, William M. “Boss” Tweed, a former congressman.
Tweed was a larger than life character and in the late 1860s and early 70s, while holding the reins of Tammany Hall and the city, he and his cronies swindled millions of taxpayer dollars. As Albert Bigelow Paine wrote in 1904 about Tweed and Tammany, those leading the city government did not cook the books to hide their activities. They simply refused to show them.
“The ordinary citizen with a desire to exercise his right of inspection of the city's accounts did not fare well,” Paine wrote in “Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures,” a biography of Tammany-era editorial cartoonist and good government crusader Thomas Nast.
According to Tweed's congressional biography, the boss was sentenced to 12 years in prison on embezzlement charges in 1874. Tweed escaped confinement a year later and was captured in Spain after being recognized thanks to Nast's cartoons. Following his return to the U.S., Tweed died in prison in 1878.
Tweed's story is an outrageous example and cautionary tale of government corruption, and one not heeded nearly enough. In Maryland, former governor and vice president Spiro T. Agnew was convicted on corruption charges in the 1970s and, more recently, former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon resigned in 2010 amid allegations she stole gift cards meant for those in need.
Here at the Kent County News, we have filed Open Meetings Act complaints for both local and state boards when they appeared not to be in compliance and we use FOIA and PIA requests as a means of obtaining information on government activities and spending. But everyday citizens are just as empowered under both laws as journalists to act as good government watchdogs.
We put our faith in the government to serve us and the greater good. But as the adage goes, power has a tendency to corrupt, and by ensuring the Open Meetings Act is being properly followed and documents are being made available, we are fighting to ensure politicians like Boss Tweed remain a thing of the past.
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