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Editorial - Be a ray of sunshine in keeping government open

This week, March 15-21, is Sunshine Week - a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

It's a topic that not just newspapers and other media care deeply about. The public should care too.

Imagine a government that routinely holds secret meetings out of the public eye, where key decisions are based not on public input, but on private, self-serving interests shielded from the public.

Imagine a government where documents that should be subject to public perusal and scrutiny are withheld or mysteriously lost when they're requested to be released.

Imagine a government that jails a citizen without providing any reasons why and then refusing to disclose where the person is being detained.

The line between imagination and reality isn't as solidly sure as some Americans think. Transparency in government isn't just something that happens. It requires constant vigilance - by the media, by government leaders and by the public.

A 2009 survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University showed that there's a lot of room for improvement when it comes to opening government secrecy. Of those surveyed, 73 percent characterized the federal government as "somewhat or very secretive."

The public's perception of state and local government, thankfully, was a little better. More than half, 57 percent, described their local governments as "very or somewhat open," and 44 percent described state government that way. Still, the fact that 43 percent of people thought their local government is "very or somewhat secretive" is troubling.

President Barack Obama, on his first day in office, said he wants to usher in a new era of open government. He ordered all federal agencies to adopt a "presumption in favor of disclosure" policy when handling requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Most Americans, 79 percent, said that Obama was doing the right thing, according to the Scripps survey.

There are things the average citizen can do in the effort to let the sun shine on government activities and decisions:

•Go to local government meetings. There are too many empty chairs. The Douglas County Board generally meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month beginning at 9 a.m. at the courthouse. The Alexandria City Council meets on the second and fourth Monday of the month at 7 p.m. at city hall. The District 206 School Board meets on the third Monday of the month at 7 p.m. at the district office at 1910 Aga Drive, Suite 206. Meeting times of other school boards, city councils and township boards are easy to track down with a phone call or two. (Also, watch for the Echo Press' Community Guide that will be distributed on April 8; it contains local government information and contact numbers.)

•Keep informed. Read the paper. Go online. Listen to the radio. Flip on the TV news. Having at least an inkling about what is going on around you can give you a much clearer idea of how government operates and the decisions that are at stake.

•Speak up. If you don't understand something, ask. Write a letter to the editor. Contact your local township official, your city council member, your state legislator and get the scoop from them. Believe it or not, elected officials - the good ones, anyway - like to hear from their constituents. They'd rather deal with a concern directly instead of having people bad-mouth them in their own little cliques.

Let's all work together to scatter away the clouds of distrust and secrecy by keeping the light shining on what the government - our government - is doing.