2017-03-31 / Editorials

‘Freedom of information isn’t just a press issue’

EDITORIAL

The Simi Valley Acorn was a bit remiss in failing to acknowledge Sunshine Week earlier this month. Sunshine Week—held March 12 to 18 this year—is a nationwide initiative to promote the public’s right to government records and the transparency that access creates.

Started in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors and in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the weeklong campaign seeks to spread the word that “freedom of information isn’t just a press issue. It is a cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels,” according to the Sunshine Week website.

There was a time not so long ago that government decisions were made behind closed doors with little or no public scrutiny. That changed in the 1960s with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

Since its inception in 1966, the FOIA—introduced by California Congressman John E. Moss and signed into law, albeit begrudgingly, by President Lyndon B. Johnson—has been a key piece of legislation giving media (and the public) the right to access government records.

States have adopted their own policies on freedom of information. In California, it’s called the California Public Records Act. All public agencies must comply with the CPRA. That includes special districts, community college districts and nonprofits that are legislative bodies under the Brown Act. If funded with public money, public nonprofits, as well as private nonprofits that have the legal authority to carry out public actions, must also satisfy a CPRA request. Courts are not subject to the CPRA, though most court records are considered public record under the First Amendment.

Some records are protected from public view. Those include information about sexual assault victims and minors, medical records, attorney-client privilege, active police investigations and most personnel-related files.

In Ventura County, the right to public access has been significant in several recent cases of suspected or proven public malfeasance.

Those cases include the alleged over-billing of legal fees at the Camarillo Health Care District—for which the Camarillo Acorn is involved in a CPRA-related case—and the abuse of office by former T.O. City Manager Scott Mitnick, who was fired after the Thousand Oaks Acorn and other media agencies revealed his wrongdoing after they were granted access to his email correspondence on the matter.

Right-to-access laws also promote transparency by discouraging government agencies from hiding wrongdoing, even if it proves to be embarrassing. Such was the case with the Simi Valley Community Foundation, which quickly brought to light last year the alleged embezzlement of charitable funds by its former executive director.

So while the Acorn did miss Sunshine Week, it firmly believes freedom of information promotes a healthy democracy through transparency and is a right that should be celebrated all year long.

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