Sunshine alone is not enough
March 12, 2012
by Ivan Raconteur

Let the sunshine in.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, The 5th Dimension had a huge hit with the song “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine in.”

It was featured in the musical “Hair,” back in the days when some of us had a lot more hair than we do today.

I remember listening to people singing passionately about letting the sunshine in, and I wish we could hear more of that today.

I am not just talking about freaky people with flowers entwined in their long, luxurious locks, but about everyone; people from all walks of life.

Newspapers across the country will celebrate Sunshine Week March 11 to 17 this year.

Sunshine Week is a time that we, in the newspaper industry, try to raise awareness of citizens’ rights to know about the activities of their government.

We talk about important things like the open meeting law and access to public information.

This is familiar stuff to journalists because we deal with these issues every day of the year.

We fight for the public’s right to know even when the public seems not to care.

We have enemies in this fight, powerful enemies that can negate all of our efforts to shine a light on public information and the activities of government.

The most dangerous of these enemies is not, as some might expect, the government – it is apathy.

The problem is that no matter how hard we work to bring public information out into the sunshine where everyone can see it, this is only part of the equation.

You see, we can’t do it all alone.

We can publish information, but without informed citizens to receive that information and take action, its benefit is limited.

Even at the local level, if newspapers publish information about government actions that may not be in the citizens’ best interest, but no residents complain, there is no reason for government to change, and it may take even bolder action the next time.

We, as citizens, elect people to represent us, and it is up to us to hold them accountable.

Apathy is dangerous.

We know that there are things elected officials do with which members of the public are not happy. We know this because we hear them complaining about government at the coffee shop, in taverns, and elsewhere in the community.

However, if people do not share their concerns with policy makers, nothing will change.

Some people have never attended a council meeting or contacted an elected official.

They justify this by saying that they are only one person, and they can’t change anything.

This simply isn’t true.

Every year, I spend hundreds of hours in government meetings, observing township boards, city councils, school and county boards, state senators and representatives, and even, on rare occasions, US senators and representatives.

One thing that all of these people have in common is that they are elected, and, for the most part, will listen to their constituents.

It is true that some elected officials seem more committed to their party or their own agenda, but the more residents who contact them, the more likely they are to listen.

I have seen city councils reverse direction because a single resident took the time to attend a meeting and express his concerns.

Individual citizens do have power, and that power increases when citizens get together and hold elected officials accountable.

Some elected officials genuinely want to know what their constituents think, but they will never know what that is unless people tell them.

We have seen signs of unrest in this country in recent months, but it is not necessary to join a party or camp out in a park to get the attention of government.

Change is possible if citizens attend public meetings, or contact their representatives and let them know what is on their minds.

Telling one’s bartender or barista how the latest tax increase is crippling one’s finances is not likely to result in any policy change, but telling one’s elected officials just might.

If citizens don’t exercise their rights and make their voices heard, no amount of sunshine or public information in the newspaper will make any difference.

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