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Sunshine laws protect everyone

Most of us would agree that sunshine is a great thing. Rays of light remove darkness and allow us to see things more clearly.

When there is sunlight, everything seems much brighter and more transparent. When it comes to laws to make government more open, journalists refer to them as sunshine laws.

This week, the media is celebrating what is known as Sunshine Week in the nation, recognizing the First Amendment and freedom in reporting. In particular, gaining access to public records in government.

Many in the general public believe that sunshine laws are just for the media. But in fact, they were created for residents as well in order for them to gain access in how government funding is spent.

As taxpayers, we have entrusted our elected officials to spend our tax dollars wisely and represent us in our best interest. These laws are necessary in order for residents to access public information to ensure those we elect are doing the right and just thing.

But not all residents are going to take the time to seek this information. In fact, most residents will not try to find public records to see where their tax dollars are going. That is where we as the media come in.

The media, in particular local media such as the news staff of the EAGLE, attend the government meetings and report how your tax dollars are being spent.

At times government bodies find it necessary to meet behind closed doors for executive sessions.

Open meeting laws, which fall under the Sunshine Act criteria, are in place to ensure government entities are required to report on what took place in executive session, as well as to prevent those same government agencies from going behind closed doors to meet about subjects that are required to be discussed in an open forum.

Sunshine laws also prevent government agencies from charging outrageous fees to gain access to public records that are readily available by simply asking for the documents.

Sunshine laws vary from state to state, but are basically the same in  gaining access when making a public records request, or what is termed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Often times a government agency will require the public or media to fill out such a request in order to gain information. A fee can be attached to such a request.

In Mississippi, for example, the law states that “a public body may charge reasonable costs for the actual cost of searching, reviewing, duplicating and, if needed, mailing the records. In no case can the cost be more than ‘actual cost.’ The decision to charge for public records is discretionary.”

Some government bodies have at times tried to use this provision to discourage access to public information by charging enormous fees.

I personally believe that there should be a reasonable set fee across the board for local, state and federal agencies to prevent government bodies from using this provision against the media and residents in gaining public information.

Rob Sigler is managing editor of The Oxford EAGLE. Contact him at rob.sigler@oxfordeagle.com.