GUEST COMMENTARY: A call to citizens to hold government accountable

Thursday, March 20, 2014 | 10:10 p.m. CDT; updated 11:02 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 20, 2014

Editor's note: March 16-22 is Sunshine Week, a national initiative spearheaded by  The American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. It was established in March 2005 with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The commitment to transparency and open government, however, is upheld by the Missourian all year long.


Two court rulings this month speak loudly about the power of public information in a democracy.

The Illinois Court of Appeals said the city of Chicago must make available for public inspection reports of alleged police brutality and other acts of official misconduct by Chicago police. The court reaffirmed a 2009 Illinois Supreme Court ruling that police officers have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” with respect to internal-affairs investigation files that focus on their on-duty conduct, and that the public is entitled to monitor how law enforcement agencies police their own ranks.

Colorado courts, both state and federal, similarly have found that government records discussing allegations of official misconduct by public employees are not “personnel files” or otherwise “private” documents that can be shielded from public inspection.

Also this month, a Denver District Court judge upheld the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission’s finding that Secretary of State Scott Gessler violated state law when he used taxpayer funds to attend a political event in Florida.

The successful challenge to Gessler’s improper and unlawful conduct, undertaken by Colorado Ethics Watch, was made possible by public records that documented his wrongdoing.

This is Sunshine Week. It is a time to celebrate and commemorate our state and federal sunshine laws, which guarantee that “We the People” have access to information — public meetings and public records — that help us hold our public servants accountable, from the secretary of state to the police officer patrolling the street.

As James Madison wrote, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or, perhaps both.”

Colorado’s Supreme Court has similarly stated that “A free self-governing people needs full information concerning the activities of its government not only to shape its views of policy and to vote intelligently in elections, but also to compel the state, the agent of the people, to act responsibly and account for its actions.”

The vital and powerful role played by “ordinary citizens” — all of us — in keeping a watchful eye on our government cannot be overstated.

The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit, tax-exempt group of organizations and individuals committed to government transparency, is on an ambitious and important mission: to help empower citizens throughout the state to exercise their statutory and constitutional rights to access information about our government. The CFOIC’s website has a public records request form and numerous other resources available free of charge.

Please, not only during Sunshine Week, but throughout the year, make use of these resources and help keep our government accountable. As a citizen, doing so is not only your right, it is your duty.

Steven D. Zansberg is president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. This commentary originally ran in The Denver Post. Reprinted with permission.

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