Democratic government is built on the foundation that its power and authority rest with the people. To preserve that power, citizens absolutely must have information about the actions and activities of their government - through the news media's watchdog role and through access to public records and meetings.
In Washington state, we have strong public-access laws citizens themselves put in place in the 1970s by using their power of initiative. The preamble of one of those laws - the state Open Public Meetings Act - makes clear citizens' intent:
"The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve 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. The people insist on remaining informed so they may retain control over the instruments they have created."
All public officials, the media and individual citizens share a deep responsibility to make sure that the preamble is valued and that public-access laws remain strong.
Judge Damon Keith, of the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, said: "Democracies die behind closed doors."
Elected and appointed officials have a fundamental obligation to keep government's doors wide open to the public. Yet, legitimate concerns about personal privacy and identity theft have created a rush by government to close information to the public. Citizens' right to information has become a question of whether or not the public needs it.
That must never be the question.
To me, the fundamental question boils down to: Whose government is it?
Most public employees are honest, hardworking and dedicated to doing the right thing. But, some agencies simply don't want to be bothered. It is easier for them to deny a public-records request, for example, than to take the time to fulfill it.
We also see instances in which public officials deliberately shut the doors and run a government as if it were their own private club.
For all of us in government, we must never forget whom we work for.
Thomas Jefferson said: "Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."
The First Amendment recognizes the critical role the news media play in their vigilant scrutiny of government and their reporting of information citizens need to stay abreast of actions and policies that affect their daily lives.
The continued concentration of media ownership legitimately raises concerns about press bias and independence. Also, technology that enables anyone with a computer to become a mass communicator raises doubts about the truth and accuracy of some information.
Media owners must remember that the bedrock of our democracy is formed on the press' responsibility to provide a fair, complete and accurate account of government activities. It is up to the media to cover the news and uncover issues. They must ask the hard questions and seek the truth.
To fulfill our own constitutional responsibility, the Office of State Auditor regularly audits and reports on government stewardship over public resources. And, while we do not have enforcement powers, we are able to shine the public light of day on conditions we find. We report our work broadly, and often find the media and citizens using it to further discussion on a wide range of issues.
President John Adams said: "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know."
Individual citizens have a civic duty to keep informed and to actively participate in their government. Complacency and apathy are enemies of accountability.
I define accountability as government being open, accessible and responsive to people. Government must listen to citizens, and when it talks to people, it must tell them the truth.
Open, accessible government is the soul of our democracy. It breeds citizen trust and confidence in their government. But, that trust is fragile.
It is never wrong to open government's doors and let the people in.
Brian Sonntag is the Washington state auditor.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company