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Learn about government access

Today begins kind of a special week, not just for journalists, but for all of our nation’s citizens.

This week is recognized as “Sunshine Week.” It’s a time when a major focus is place upon government accessability.

This often is a time when news agencies across the country find ways to test the openness of government, especially when it comes to public records.

Years ago, this newspaper conducted such an experiment by sending some of its reporters to various government offices to request select information. We didn’t identify ourselves as journalists. The point was to see how easy it was for everyday citizens to obtain copies of police reports, budgets and other documents.

The point is that anyone is supposed to be able to obtain government records. It is not an ability given only to journalists. Sometimes there may be a small charge to cover the costs of labor and office supplies, but the fact is every single one of you has a right to access copies of these records.

All you have to do is ask.

There are, of course, always going to be exceptions. Records dealing with certain personnel issues, security measures and contracts, for example, are not open to the public. Legislation typically needs to be approved in order to be considered part of the public record. But you get the idea.

It’s the same with government meetings. With certain exceptions, all government meetings are open to the public. You have the opportunity to sit in the audience, watch the discussions and votes and even speak out on the issues.

I occasionally hear people complain about the times of meetings, saying they have other things to do, or it isn’t convenient.

I understand that. At the same time, there also are some governmental groups which have found ways to still make their meetings available.

Locally, for example, West Liberty University’s television station broadcasts meetings from all over the Northern Panhandle, including the Hancock County Commission.

The West Virginia Legislature often broadcasts its sessions over the Internet.

I would hope other governmental boards would look into these opportunities to continue providing improved access to the citizens.

As journalists, it is our job to attend these meetings and events, report on the discussions and try to put it all into context.

We ask questions in order to help bring the people the information of the goings-on in their communities.

But, we don’t get special access to certain items or discussions. I don’t get to attend executive sessions when they are called, for example.

During this week, I would encourage our residents to get better acquainted with their local, state and national records laws. Learns your rights as citizens, and, whenever possible, exercise them.

(Howell, a resident of Colliers, is managing editor of The Weirton Daily Times, and can be contacted at chowell@weirtondailytimes.com or followed on Twitter @CHowellWDT)

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