Public servants must know their place

Dan Radmacher

“Government is the servant of the people, and not the master of them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

— Original legislative preamble to West Virginia’s Open Meetings Act, since amended.

In the 10 years I spent covering state government in West Virginia, I didn’t see a whole lot worth emulating. But the statement above laying out the rationale for the state open meetings act is a shining exception.

I’ve never seen a better, more concise explanation of the philosophy behind open government.

The language in the first sentence has been modified and diluted a bit over the years, made less visceral and more legalistic. It now speaks of citizens not yielding sovereignty to governmental agencies. But the second sentence remains intact. And it cuts to the heart of the issue: People, not government officials, are the boss. Government officials do not have the right to tell the people what they can know about how their business is conducted.

Compare that bold declaration to Virginia’s far wimpier counterpart: “The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government.”

That doesn’t rest the right to open government on the fact that the people are the master of government. It rests it on the far flimsier foundation of the fact that the people are supposed to be the beneficiary of government action.

The West Virginia language accomplishes something else important: It makes it explicit that open government is a right of the people, not just of the press.

Every year when we highlight open government during Sunshine Week, I worry that readers will see it as self-serving. Of course, we’re in favor of open government laws. They make it easier for us to dig up dirt on politicians.

But open government laws are not about digging up dirt — though they do facilitate that. They are not about making the job of the press easier — though they do that, as well. Open government laws are there for the people, the masters of government, to ensure that government actions really are designed to benefit the public.

Open government laws provide tools — the Freedom of Information Act and access to meetings by government bodies — that allow all citizens the ability to keep an eye on the government that’s supposed to be representing them.

Yes, the press makes good use of these tools, too, but on the public’s behalf — which makes open government an issue that all concerned citizens should pay attention to.

These laws, after all, work only if public officials follow them or if citizens hold those who don’t accountable.

Public officials often believe they have good cause to shut out the public. Sometimes they even do. The Virginia open government act has more than enough exemptions to cover such instances.

But sometimes it just comes down to convenience. It would be easier to meet in private, less messy. It would protect someone’s reputation or prevent unnecessary controversy. Excuses abound.

When you hear such excuses, just remember this: The people do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.

Do your best to make sure public servants remember it, too.

Open government isn’t always easy, and it is often messy. But a government open to its citizens is a fundamental right.

The above column was originally published March 14 by the Roanoke Times. Content was made available by MCT Campus.