Every week is Sunshine Week, or should be. That includes this week, which is the week after Sunshine Week.
I’m not typically a fan of weeks, or days or moments — you know, the events, or holidays that are made up to be targeted by Madison Ave. Once on Mother’s Day when I was a kid I asked my mom why there wasn’t a kids’ day. Every day is children’s day, she said, which, as annoying as it was to me at the time, was a pretty good answer. That’s how I feel about Sunshine Week.
The idea of Sunshine Week is to call attention to the importance of the free flow of information and the role the news media — which includes my favorite: newspapers — plays in the essential task of keeping information freely flowing. This is especially important in an era when inconvenient truths are labeled “fake news” and the press “the enemy of the people” by the leader of the free world. Misinformation is a tactic of obfuscation and deceit.
Of course, freedom of information is sloppy and can’t be controlled. Even those we are taught to admire have had their issues. Thomas Jefferson, who said he’d rather have newspapers than government, changed his mind about it once he became president.
Abraham Lincoln, our shining star of liberty who thought a free press essential to a free government, ordered that newspapers be closed as a result of a fake story during the Civil War.
So, it’s a struggle.
At the top of a pile of books on my desk is “Opinionated Women in the Land of Steady Habits,” a collection of newspaper columns edited by James Herbert Smith, the former editor of the Record-Journal. The first of the 63 women writers featured in the book is Barbara C. White, the long-time Record-Journal editor and columnist who was also editorial page editor. I was lucky to have known her and, like just about everyone else in the organization, called her Mrs. White, out of respect and affection. Mrs. White, who was called by a colleague “the grand lady of Connecticut newspaper journalism,” died, almost exactly 10 years ago.
She and her husband, R-J President and Publisher Carter H. White, were instrumental in the push for open government that led to the enactment of the state open records law in 1957 and the Freedom of Information Act in 1975. They were a one-two punch, with Carter White advocating in Hartford and Mrs. White supporting it in the pages of the newspaper. As readers likely recognize, the Record-Journal to this day vigorously defends the principles behind the FOI law.
In a 1989 Record-Journal column that is included in “Opinionated Women,” Mrs. White wrote about the tendency toward secret meetings:
“Just about everybody thinks the public has a Right to Know, and that laws enforcing this right are a good thing. But when it comes to officials and their own conduct of public business, a lot of them just can’t accept that it applies to them. Public agencies and officials come up with some of the darnedest dodges for keeping their meetings and records secret.”
She was writing about a dodge around FOI that had been going on in Baton Rouge, La., but her observation holds just as true today. There are always those who tend toward secrecy.
The Record-Journal’s Jesse Buchanan recently filed an encouraging report that found area towns scoring well when it comes to Freedom of Information compliance. There was a bolstering observation from Plainville Town Manager Robert Lee: “Pretty much everything is public,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, it’s subject to FOI.”
But, inevitably, come reasons for worry. Southington’s school superintendent, Tim Connellan, recently formed a group for a good cause, to try to tackle the challenging issue of racial inequity. But secrecy is being regarded as an advantage rather than a detriment to the proceedings, and the identities of those in the group have not been revealed. The initial meeting was also recently held behind closed doors.
That needs to be challenged. As Tom Hennick, public education officer for the FOIC noted in an R-J story, groups formed by a school superintendent are considered public under state law.
Every week needs to be Sunshine Week. As Mrs. White noted at the very end of her 1989 column: “The process of getting the word out is never over.”
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com.
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