By Don Nelson
It’s Sunshine Week again, and I’m not talking about our spring-like weather.
To explain Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide event that started more than a dozen years ago, it’s perhaps more efficient to offer this description from the organization’s website (http://sunshineweek.org):
“Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why. Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger. Participants include news media, government officials at all levels, schools and universities, libraries and archives, individuals, non-profit and civic organizations, historians and anyone with an interest in open government.”
I usually say this each year, but it bears repeating, and re-repeating: the public in “public’s right to know” is you. Access to public meetings, documents and other information is not the exclusive reserve of the news media. In fact, we are essentially acting as the public’s surrogate when we insist that meetings be open and that records be available.
In Washington state, that determination is backed up by a citizens’ initiative. In 1972 the voters adopted Initiative 276, which requires that most records maintained by state, county, city governments, and all special purpose districts be made available to members of the public.
Sometimes government behaves as if access is a distracting burden. It’s not. Providing appropriate access is a responsibility of government at every level. In Washington state, elected local public officials are now required to be trained in how applicable state laws are supposed to work.
It’s true that some people abuse the public records disclosure provisions and create genuine overloads on the resources of local governments. But by and large, the system works pretty well — if everyone acknowledges its intent.
It’s not always obvious how access works, but here is one example: Information for the story in last week’s paper about the probable cause of the Rising Eagle Road fire last summer came from a public records request filed by reporter Marcy Stamper. It wasn’t that the information was being hidden — but someone had to ask for it.
That’s part of our role. Your role as a citizen is to insist on maximum transparency from your government. These days, the assaults on that principle are constant.
This community’s generosity shouldn’t continue to amaze me. Still, consider what happened here last weekend, and you might also feel a little awestruck.
The Bite of the Methow is an annual event that raises funds for Kiwanis projects that might otherwise never happen. On Saturday night at the Winthrop Barn, the Bite raised more than $46,000.
Right after the Bite, a hastily put-together event at Liberty Bell High School drew a pretty good crowd (many of them coming directly from the Winthrop Barn), who came to watch the Mountain Lions’ varsity boys’ and girls’ basketball teams play teams made up of Liberty Bell alums.
That event generated about $4,000 through admission prices, food sales and a silent auction that offered donated items from many of the same local companies and organizations that had contributed to the Bite’s live and silent auctions.
That’s $50,000 in one night — or about $10 for each of the valley’s estimated 5,000 residents.
Giving is a year-round priority for the entire Methow Valley community, which makes it possible to support programs and organizations here that might not survive elsewhere. There are a couple of reasons for that, I think. One is the valley’s ingrained culture of helping each other out where there is need. And I think people here understand that a dollar donated will come back to them in some way that makes the quality of life here better. It’s more than a donation. It’s an investment and a commitment.