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Guest Commentary: It’s more than a newspaper issue

Posted: Wednesday, Oct 2nd, 2013

When it comes to questions about government openness and transparency, some historical figures have said it best.

“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.” - President James Madison


“Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety." - President Woodrow Wilson


“Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but the Freedom of Information Act lets us know when they do not.” Sen. Patrick Leahy


And in honor of JFK’s trip to Laramie 50 years ago:

 “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” President John F. Kennedy


Such quotes remind us that an open and transparent government, and fighting to keep it that way, is part of our country’s origin and continued history.

 That fight continues today.

 Nationally, the president speaks of openness and transparency, but his contradicting actions speak louder.

Last session, the state Legislature prioritized keeping the University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees’ ill-advised promise to keep the recent president search closed more than it prioritized the public’s right to know.

In Laramie, the Boomerang is involved in three separate public records debates with the city of Laramie, Albany County School District No. 1 and Ivinson Memorial Hospital.

The city issue is in regards to the hiring process and what documents are considered public. The courts will be involved as the city has sued the Boomerang, its publisher, Jerry Raehal, and Councilor Joe Vitale for declaratory judgment.

The school district issue is in regards to releasing documents related to its recent “climate study.” We believe public interest exists in teachers’ perceptions of their work environment and district leadership’s role in that environment. We are attempting to meet with legal counsel and representatives on both sides to see if we can come to a reasonable conclusion before either side takes legal action.

The hospital issue is in regards to two concerns — its hiring process of a new CEO and how it plans to operate openly (or not) with its management company, University of Colorado Health.

Of these three issues, the hospital’s is the most concerning. Why? Because the management company claims it is a private corporation and isn’t bound by public records law. 

In effect, we now have a hospital that taxes the public through its hospital district designation, that has an elected board, and that, according to its management company, does not need to follow public records state law. If not challenged, it sets a disturbing precedent.

We disagree with UC Health’s stance, and we’ll seek a resolution to ensure IMH has an open process.

On one hand, these issues are concerning. On the other hand, fighting for openness is part of our country’s history, and the fight is important.

Newspapers play a major role in that. The founding fathers thought so highly of the presses’ presence in our country as the government watchdog, they made it part of the First Amendment, right along with freedom of religion and speech.

But, open government is not, and should not be, a newspaper-only issue. As the quotes above indicate, the reason for openness is for the people to be informed and part of the government process. When government operates behind closed doors, the people lose.

We encourage you to have conversations with your elected officials about having the right to know — about hiring practices, about leadership, about respect of the law, about what is public.

To quote Benjamin Franklin, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

 Government transparency is a historical fight worth continuing. In fact, in today’s society, it might be more important than ever.

To quote Judge Damon Keith, of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, “Democracies die behind closed doors. The First Amendment, through a free press, protects the people’s right to know that their government acts fairly, lawfully and accurately.”

Jerry Raehal is the publisher of The Laramie Boomerang.

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