This time each year, news organizations across the country recognize Sunshine Week. Despite its name, the week has nothing to do with the sun. Instead, Sunshine Week recognizes the importance of open records and the Sunshine Law, a law requiring certain proceedings of government agencies to be open or available to the public.
A lot of good comes out of having open government meetings and records. It allows people in the community to know what’s going on in their city councils or county commissions. It allows anyone to request records, including but not limited to budgets. It creates transparency.
In East Alabama, our news organization has never had a problem with getting records or information from public entities. We hope that doesn’t change. But elsewhere, reporters and government officials butt heads often over what information is considered public, how quickly that information has to be given to the person requesting information, and how much copies of public records cost.
That’s why having a clearly defined state-wide open records law and the Sunshine Law are so important.
Get online and you can find results for the American treasury, records of deaths by certain means, such as suicide, cancer, etc. You can view birth records, arrest records, marriage records, divorce records, etc. In Alabama, the Sunshine Law is broken down into two different statues: Open Meetings Law and Public Records Law. The public records law is what allows the public access to records like above, though records for banking, juvenile court, hospital, probation reports, Medicaid recipient identity, reports of suspected disease cases as well as financial statements are exempt.
The Open Meetings Law is why we at The Citizen can report what happens at the local government meetings and how we known when the meetings are being held. The law requires that public entities publish a schedule of the meeting so many days in advance and that anyone from the public can attend, except in cases of attorney-client meetings, discussions involving a person or person’s reputation, grand jury and juvenile proceedings. Oftentimes such meetings are held in what is known as an ‘executive session’ and are routinely called toward the end of a public meeting. Without these laws protecting the public’s right to know, citizens can’t hold their elected officials accountable.
So, let the sun shine in.