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Sunshine toon

“The Freedom of Information Law, effective January 1, 1978 reaffirms your right to know how your government operates. It provides rights of access to records reflective of governmental decisions and policies that affect the lives of every New Yorker. The law preserves the Committee on Open Government, which was created by enactment of the original Freedom of Information Law in 1974.”

— Your Right to Know, New York states open government laws

As a newspaper, we take our role as a watchdog of government very seriously.

Whether it is the federal, state, county, town or village, we believe it is important to hold government responsible to the people and ensure it is open, transparent and accountable to all citizens.

These days, that can be a formidable task.

Our bible is a 4-inch by 9-inch pamphlet titled “Your Right to Know” published by New York’s Committee on Open Government.

This is the journalist’s guide to what government can and cannot keep secret, when officials are allowed to close a meeting and when they are not.

We expect our reporters to know this information better than the officials they are covering. We believe they carry a responsibility to represent the people of our communities when they are covering open meetings.

Unfortunately, not many people know the rules of open government beyond reporters, lawyers and a few astute citizens.

Once a year, those of us in the journalism game take a week to address the issues of open government. Honestly, we should do it more often.

It is called Sunshine Week and it starts today.

The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state’s public records law. FSNE estimated some 300 exemptions to open government laws were defeated in the legislative sessions that followed its three Sunshine Sundays because of the increased public and legislative awareness that resulted from the Sunshine Sunday reports and commentary.

Several states followed Florida’s lead, and in June 2003, the American Society of News Editors hosted a Freedom of Information Summit in Washington where the seeds for Sunshine Week were planted.

With an inaugural grant from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which continued to support the effort, Sunshine Week was launched by ASNE in March 2005. This nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative is celebrated in mid-March each year to coincide with James Madison’s birthday, March 16.

Our newspaper has been participating from the very beginning.

Over the course of the year our reporters routinely file Freedom of Information Law requests in their pursuit of information for stories and are constantly vigilant about when a meeting can and cannot be closed.

Our reporters regularly use FOIL as a tool to ensure our elected officials are playing by the rules and being transparent.

For instance, in January, the Fort Ann school board announced the resignation of its superintendent but refused to give any details. Our reporter requested the separation agreement through FOIL. Readers learned the superintendent be paid in full with complete benefits for another 18 months. Without FOIL, that would have been kept from citizens.

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Regular citizens can also file FOIL requests and we urge them to do it. These days they can be filed in writing or electronically.

We urge anyone who needs help with a FOIL request to contact our office and we will lend you a hand.

We’re happy to report most local government officials have a good working knowledge of what they can and cannot do and most try their best to adhere to FOIL.

But, we have our run-ins from time to time.

We are great believers in the more transparency the better from our government institutions.

On this page, we have provided a sample proclamation for all government bodies. We are hoping each local county, town, city and village will adopt the proclamation at their next public meetings as a commitment to open government and serving their citizens.

It is a symbolic gesture, but one we believe is an important one.

Our government is supposed to be open, not secret, but in these times, a renewed commitment might be good for everyone.

Local editorials represent the opinion of the Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle and citizen representative Karen Stites.

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