Commentary

This week is Sunshine Week. Here’s how you can shine the light on government | Opinion

This Sunshine Week, perhaps more than any other, highlights the necessity of accountability in government at every level

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By Liz Wagenseller

You wouldn’t think a record year of Right-To-Know Law (RTKL) appeals by Pennsylvania citizens, organizations and members of the media would result in a cautionary warning that we must remain vigilant against growing fatigue and rising complacency. But that is exactly why I am writing today.

Having seemingly impacted every level of government, our divisive and toxic partisan temperature shows no sign of abating, and our collective frustration and worry increases seemingly every day about what bad thing could be next.  Such an environment by its very nature fosters disillusionment.

However, apathy and disinterest, as understandable as they may be, yield serious consequences.

As a closed and opaque government supports a war by misleading its citizens, this Sunshine Week, perhaps more than any other, highlights the necessity of accountability in government at every level and the potential consequences of when it is lacking.

Accountability is more than a feel-good political talking point; it is a universal necessity transcending party, ideology and nationality. It is an essential thread preserving the fragile fabric of freedom.

Apathy grows when fear of the unknown looms larger, when finger pointing seems to rarely stop, and when accountability diminishes. But purposefully living in the dark because we are frustrated or angered by what the light reveals is dangerous.

As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust … We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”

Pennsylvania has no choice but to do better. Pennsylvanians must continue to demand accountability from all public officials and agencies at every level and in every political party. The alternative is a slide down a slippery slope that eventually ends in the misuse of power by those who govern.

We stand at a challenging moment in history; one impacting not just our neighborhoods, but local governments, our states, country and the world. However, we must be vigilant and active in ensuring our free and democratic future by keeping those we entrust with power from abusing this privilege. Tyrants and bullies grow strongest in the shadows.

Accountability is more than a feel-good political talking point; it is a universal necessity transcending party, ideology and nationality.

The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records gives you a number of tools to help you keep government accountable, and we encourage you to use them when appropriate.

From weekly Sunshine Act (open meetings law) and RTKL webinars to user guides and searchable final decisions on previous RTKL appeals, our website, https://www.openrecords.pa.gov, will get you started on the right foot towards understanding your rights and responsibilities at public meetings and correctly asking for information necessary to maintain government accountability.

We also hold live training sessions.  In 2021 alone, we held 75 training sessions and reached thousands of participants.  You may find our 2022 calendar of training events by clicking here.

We walk you through how to file an RTK request on our website. We maintain an extensive list of Agency Open Records Officers in every Pennsylvania county with whom you can file a request for information. We outline the four different ways you may file an RTK request (email, fax, U.S. mail, in person). We give forms that make the process easier to understand and use.   We explain how to file an appeal if a Pennsylvania government agency has denied your request for information.

And we maintain a searchable database of binding final determinations, plus a case law index that discuss in detail what records are public and why.

Whether you seek information from a township, a school district or a state agency like the Department of Health, Pennsylvania’s Right-To-Know Law offers a way forward and provides the cure for an apathetic thought.

This is Sunshine Week, after all. An annual celebration of the principle that open government is good government. But nothing is accomplished without citizens who shine a light to expose the shadows of unnecessary secrecy. Be that light.

Liz Wagenseller is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.  Sunshine Week begins on March 13 and continues thru March 19.  It is a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information. She writes from Harrisburg.

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