THERE are people in general — and politicians and bureaucrats specifically — who think the Sunshine and Open Records laws don’t apply to them.
We would like to think it is just a lack of education, that perhaps they are just erring on the side of not being sure what is for public consumption and what is meant to be discussed in private.
But we think there are more than a few of those who run our schools, counties, townships and cities (and our states and federal government) who know the rules but who find every loophole to get around them.
We have our doubts as well about some of the advice being given to our local boards and public entities as well from their attorneys — or if the advice about the Sunshine and Open Records laws is being ignored.
We were particularly stunned by the recent instructions offered at the most recent work session of the Grove City School Board – Multiple, simultaneous committee meetings during a public meeting that our reporter and the public could not easily listen to.
We would be very interested in hearing the legal justification for that one.
Here is a preview: There is none.
Pennsylvania does not have the strongest Open Records and Sunshine standards, but both do have some teeth.
But neither is effective if the governments ignore them and the public does not hold its leaders to them.
Knowing what your government is doing is not a luxury — it is a right.
You put them in office, and your tax dollars pay the bills.
That makes all of you players and VIPs when it comes to the discussions, the decisions and the questions.
Too many times we see boards in this county going into executive session for reasons that are not on the approved list — personnel, real estate, contracts, litigation and security — or trying to cling on with one finger to one of those exemptions even though the connection is tenuous at best.
That means those elected officials want to talk about stuff in private out of the public’s watchful eye — probably so they are not held accountable for what is said.
Every board in this county, save one or two A students, uses this method to keep their discussions quiet.
You shouldn’t stand for it. And we won’t either.
It is not about being nosey or trying to get information that does not belong to you.
The people you put in these positions and the schools, city and county leaders they hire are your employees. And they should be answerable to the taxpayers who pay their salaries. Just as you are accountable or were accountable to the company and bosses who paid yours.
Public officials should be looking for ways to be more open and to share more information with their constituents, not less.
And that does not mean drive-by commentary on Facebook.
We hope the city of Sharon’s new council president has gotten over that habit — and will set the standard of keeping discussion of city business where it belongs, in council meetings.
We are looking for her to stand strong for the people — and to guard vigorously against proposals that benefit only a few at the expense of the many.
And there are a few other places where that scrutiny is warranted as well. And we expect that the men and women whom you have entrusted with setting the course for your community’s future are going to correct those concerns.
When politicians and bureaucrats get the idea that they should share only what the public “needs to know,” that is when the danger gets real.
That’s why you have questionable expenditures. That’s when you have revolving doors for superintendents — and large contract payouts. And that is when a community finds itself in financial discomfort or even distress.
Open Records and Sunshine laws are there to protect us from those who just might forget that their job is to represent the people, not replace them as deciders of our community’s future.
So we will be asking for more records this year and more answers.
We will be looking hard at expenditures and contracts of all kinds — and you will know what you are paying for salaries, equipment, legal services and road repair, and to whom.
Have a question you would like to ask? Send it to us via email or any other way you choose. We probably want to know the answer, too.
Open Records and Sunshine laws are not just ways for newspapers to get information. They are the public’s window into the world they entrust every year to elected representatives.
We know the process is intimidating. We know it can get time-consuming and frustrating for those who don’t have experience with its twists and turns. And we also know that sometimes the efforts to clear away the smoke and mirrors end in more roadblocks.
But shining a light on those who serve and the public bodies they represent keeps the process honest.
And we know from experience what happens when those safeguards fail.
You are going to have more access to information this year. And we are determined to get it for you — and to keep you updated on what we are working on.
And when our local boards and other public entities drop the ball, we will point that out, too.
By the end of 2020, you will know who in Mercer County is working for the people — and who is about hiding from them.
That should make your next votes and hires that much easier.