Transparency brings accountability

Published 1:42 pm Friday, March 25, 2016

by Jim Zachary

Government must be held accountable.

The only way for the public to hold government accountable is for all the actions of government to be out in the open.

That is why open government is part and parcel of democracy.

When government is allowed to operate behind closed doors, it grows out of control, is not responsive to the public and is subject to corruption.

These are some of the reasons the media, watchdog groups — and most importantly the general public — should be committed to government transparency.

Newspapers, in particular, have a long legacy of holding government accountable, and operating as the Fourth Estate. Sadly, many newspapers have abandoned that role, leaving it up to the general public to police local governments.

Any newspaper that does not defend the First Amendment and champion open government is not worth the paper it is printed on or the ink that fills its pages.

Public officials must understand the difference between the public sector and the private sector.

Men and women elected to office and people who have been appointed to boards, commissions and authorities must understand they answer to the general public.

Whether discussing finances, facilities, daily operations or public policy, all of the people’s business must be deliberated in public and not be hidden behind closed doors.

Deliberating public business in closed-door executive sessions is not only poor public service, in most cases and in most states, it is simply against the law, except for a very narrow list of reasons.

[Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act has a distinct list of such exceptions.]

We encourage all elected officials to remember they answer to the people, not to professional government administrators and not to government lawyers. Non-elected administrators answer to them. Government attorneys answer to them.

The public must hold elected officials accountable. Elected officials, in turn, must hold the professional staff and the attorneys accountable.

It is clear the public is losing confidence in government at all levels. The only way for local governments to regain that confidence is to be open and transparent in the way they conduct the people’s business.

JIM ZACHARY is the editor of the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times, the director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, a member of the board of directors of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and co-chairman of the board of directors of the Red & Black, serving the University of Georgia. Email him at