Because of “sunshine laws” — which mandate open government — people can learn about their neighbors’ building plans or the county’s budget deliberations. Public documents are an important avenue for keeping government honest and the public educated.
Sunshine Week, which is March 10-16, is “a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” according to sunshineweek.org, a website promoting the movement.
What started as Sunshine Sunday in Florida in 2002 expanded into Sunshine Week, a national commemoration, in 2005.
Many civic activists, reporters and politicians know about sunshine laws, which allow light to shine on the who, what, where, when and why of government business.
In Montgomery County, two state sunshine laws — the Public Information Act and the Open Meetings Act — are a key to government transparency.
“Transparency is a major issue for us,” said Carole Ann Barth, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a citizens group interested in a variety of issues. “That is why we watch.”
Barth said her group wants the county to put more information on the Internet, “Not just throwing up random information, but information citizens can really use,” she said.
Currently, Montgomery County’s website has a range of data, including employee salaries, food-inspection reports and the annual budget.
Both Barth and Janis Sartucci of the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, a group dedicated to improving responsiveness and performance in Montgomery County Public Schools, use sunshine laws as they keep a watchful eye on government.
“When we think there is a problem, we file a complaint with the Open Meetings Board,” Sartucci said, referring to a body that rules on government bodies’ compliance with the state’s meeting law.
The county thinks it does well in following the state sunshine laws on open meetings and public records.
“Montgomery County’s open government efforts and the open data legislation surpass the original Sunshine laws,” Donna Bigler, assistant director of the Montgomery County Office of Public Information, said in an email.
“County Executive Ike Leggett has been very interested in making county government more open and accessible, and the county’s new openMontgomery website is a result of that,” she said.
Sunshine Sunday was a response by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors to legislators’ efforts to add exemptions to the state’s public records laws. In 2005, it became a national weeklong effort, growing from an American Society of Newspaper Editors Freedom of Information Summit.
The federal government passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. That law covered federal documents and information and did not apply to states.
Maryland passed its Public Information Act in 1970. It gives the public the right to access government records without undo cost or delay.
“A public record is defined as the original or copy of any documentary material in any form created or received by an agency in connection with the transaction of public business,” according to the state attorney general’s website, www.oag.state.md.us/Opengov/whatisPIA.pdf.
Building upon the Public Information Act, Maryland in 1977 passed an Open Meetings Act, which legislates the methods of conducting public meetings.
“Initially enacted in 1977 to foster transparency in government, the Open Meetings Act strikes a balance between the right of citizens to know public business and the need of public bodies to keep certain types of information confidential,” according to a statement from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office on the University of Maryland website http://www.igsr.umd.edu/VLC/OMA/class_oma_intro1.php, which offers a tutorial on the Open Meetings Act.
“It was post-Watergate. There had been a federal law and several other states had passed laws. It was slowly spreading [when] Maryland enacted a sunshine law,” said Jack Schwartz, an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and former Maryland assistant attorney general who specialized in open-government issues.
“Before, there was an extremely loose obligation to hold open sessions. The standards were so loose, a meeting could be closed whenever a group decided. The one importance of the law like the Maryland Open Meetings Act is that it reverses the discretion. You don’t have the ability to close a meeting just because you want to. It reflects the right point of view that the citizens have the right to know.”
Leggett announced the openMontgomery website in December just after the County Council passed open-government legislation introduced by Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At Large). That legislation requires the county to make certain data available on a single Web portal and develop a technical standards manual for publishing those data sets. The law goes into effect March 18, but some information already is posted.
The newly launched website, http://www6.montgomerycountymd.gov/apps/News/press/PR_details.asp?PrID=9047, includes four portals:
• accessMontgomery (http://montgomerycountymd.gov/access), which provides links to services such as MC311, the county’s information call center, and CountyStat performance tracking including direct links to internal audits, spending disclosures, contracts, open solicitations and budgets.
• dataMontgomery (https://data.montgomerycountymd.gov), which includes employee salaries, residential and commercial building permits, and information on real property taxes.
• engageMontgomery (http://engage.montgomerycountymd.gov) is a social media platform that will serve as an online town hall meeting, where people can share ideas on ways to improve the community. County employees can get public feedback on various topics for funding priorities.
• mobileMontgomery (http://montgomerycountymd.gov/mobile), the county’s app store, offers a list of the county’s mobile sites with directions on how to bookmark them.