Our government relies heavily on its citizens’ right to know. It’s how we keep track of what officials are doing so as to hold accountable those who trample on that right.
The state’s founding fathers felt so strongly about the subject that they embedded that right in the N.H. Constitution, in Article 8 of the state’s Bill of Rights:
“All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them. Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”
This ringing insistence on openness allows us to know when and where meetings will be held, and what will be discussed. It allows us to determine how our tax dollars are spent, and whether those expenditures were proper and effective. It gives anyone who’s interested access to records, warrants, budgets and investigations.
It helps us to stay safe by revealing pertinent information on crimes and the courts. It allows us to judge our political office holders and candidates by making public their spending on projects and campaigns. It can provide the means to track where money in politics and government comes from, and where it goes.
The importance of open government has been reinvigorated over the past year as heightened concerns about social justice and systemic racism have spurred calls across the country for greater transparency in law enforcement. Here in New Hampshire, those calls have led to a series of recommendations of the Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency Commission which, if fully implemented, will go far toward bettering the ability of New Hampshire’s residents to assess the administration of justice and, while appreciating the fine work done by so many of the state’s law enforcement officers, to demand and expect improvements when there are shortcomings.
As cherished as the right of every citizen to know what those who represent and work for them are up to, however, its full benefits to the public face two ongoing limitations.
The first is that many people don’t bother to make use of the tools available to inform themselves. We urge everyone to pay attention and seek whatever information can help shed light on the workings of our political and governmental system. If you don’t know what your city, town or school district is spending money on, it’s difficult to speak with any weight on issues of taxes, for example.
The second is that — whether through simple error or willful contempt — those charged with shining light on the workings of our government don’t always comply. There are enough exceptions to the blanket “right to know” that it can be something of a minefield at times for officials trying to navigate them. More problematic are those instances when officials who know what information should be made public refuse to do so or unreasonably delay in responding to legitimate requests by the public for access to the public’s records. In such cases, costly legal action is often the sole remedy, which burdens both those seeking the information and taxpayers whose money is being spent defending an illegal action.
This past Sunday marked the start of Sunshine Week — an annual observance to highlight the importance of our access to information, and the dangers of having that access curtailed. That right of access belongs to everyone, and we urge all who care about good government to cherish it and insist on the public’s right to know.