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Pioneer Editorial: Keep open access to government

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Journalists throughout nation, in an effort led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, celebrates this week as Sunshine Week.

Simply put, Sunshine Week is about the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why.

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In today's world, with the Internet, bloggers, BlackBerry devices and satellite and cell phones, it's seems impossible for government to withhold secrets from the public. Yet, it happens and often without a whimper from the public.

Perhaps the most severe example is that of the former George W. Bush administration which used the war on terrorism to skirt around the U.S. Constitution in warrantless eavesdropping on telephone calls by or to U.S. citizens thought to have terrorist connections.

And efforts to muzzle the press -- traditionally the watchdog of government actions -- still run strong. In just the past week, our Capitol Bureau reporter, Don Davis, ran afoul of supposed new Minnesota House rules placing severe restrictions on photography in public committee rooms. While a staff member tried to prevent Davis from photographing at a hearing and eventually called in state troopers, House members were unaware of the interpretation some were taking of the rules. It took a vote of the House to reaffirm freedom of the press and make it known that no special credentials would be needed for anyone to photograph in a public meeting room.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said the incident had " chilling effect" on the press. He and Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, offered the motion to assure freedom of the press.

Also in the Legislature is a bill being pushed by the League of Minnesota Cities which would allow cities to craft their city budgets behind closed doors and only present the final draft for public scrutiny. That move also would have a chilling effect -- this time on the public which pays the taxes that supports the budget. The public needs access at each step of the way, to ensure all budget ideas are considered and debated, not be handed a spoon-fed document when it's time for a vote.

Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to given them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.

We are fortunate that the technology of today is giving us even greater access to government through the Internet. Many government meeting agendas are posted online, as well as many documents and budgets. Knowing how to access those documents can be a chore, but once learned, a wealth of information is at one's fingertips.

A survey of journalists found that Minnesota is slightly better than average in online access to state government records, with 65 percent of the records checked being available online, compared to a national average of 60 percent. According to The Associated Press, the survey looked for 20 different records, ranging from nursing home inspections to teacher certifications to school bus inspections.

Two buzzwords in government today are transparency and accountability. To do that, the nation needs a free press and an informed citizenry to hold government to it.

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