Tuesday, March 24, 2009, Editorial • DFG needs to cough up the pike report now

Publisher’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, March 24, 2009, edition of the Lassen County Times.

The public’s right to know is a fundamental component of democracy, and a free press is necessary to disseminate information.

Government entities can pay lip service to such access. They say they want to be transparent in how they conduct the people’s business. Yet, when it comes time to release information to the public, some of these same groups say, “No, that will trounce on someone’s privacy.”

At first glance protecting the privacy of citizens sounds fair. No one is comfortable being publicly exposed. However, that does not give public entities the right to keep information about decisions and crimes from the people.

President Lyndon B. Johnson first signed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, giving the public the right to know what government or public agencies are doing, and for more than 30 years the FOIA has had more than its fair share of problems.

Journalists and the public have a right to know what elected leaders are doing. They also have a right to know how much public employees earn and if they are doing their jobs — particularly important in these tough economic times when cutbacks are inevitable.

It has never been OK to blindly trust those in charge. If decisions and choices affect communities, then the public and journalists have a right to the information.

Elected officials and public employees must be accountable to the citizens they work for and the only way to make sure things are being done right is to have the federal Freedom of Information Act and California’s equivalent, the Public Records Act.

After years of the Bush Administration limiting FOIA, the public is crying for open government, and we agree public entities need to reveal what they are doing and allow citizens to determine the course of government.

Besides being the law, openness on the part of government agencies is simply good public relations. Secrecy breeds distrust.

Look at the case of the Lake Davis Steering Committee. The state Department of Fish and Game is being cagey about releasing the final report on the economic impacts of the pike eradication project. The agency has delayed so long it is now saying it doesn’t have time to present the findings to the committee before it takes the report to the state legislature.

Not surprisingly, members of the committee are growing increasingly uneasy. If they do not see the report before it is presented to the legislature, they won’t even know what might need rebutting. The net result will be poor public dialogue and worse decision-making. DFG needs to cough up the report — now.

Here’s another case in point: School boards in some areas are taking into closed session items that should be discussed and voted on in open session. The March 15 lay-off notices that each California school summarily hands out are a good example. Discussion and action on the notices must happen in open session.

Ultimately that is what free access to information is about — fostering an informed dialogue about issues of collective well-being.