Tribune editorial: Crisis shows need for open government

Tribune editorial: Crisis shows need for open government

From the North Dakota coronavirus news roundup of the week: March 15-21 series

We are in the middle of Sunshine Week, which started Sunday and runs through Saturday. It couldn’t have occurred at a more appropriate time.

Sunshine Week, a national initiative launched by the American Society of News Editors, strives to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unneeded secrecy.

Open government couldn’t be more critical than during a time like the coronavirus pandemic. From the federal level to local entities, it’s essential that information is shared quickly with the public. People have been urged to rely on facts and not panic. The facts need to come, and quickly, from officials.

There’s no doubt some officials were hesitant to be completely honest about the threat posed by the coronavirus. They didn’t want to upset the jittery stock market or worry the public. That was the wrong approach.

When the pandemic ends, there will be plenty of time to analyze how well government officials handled the situation. One thing should have been clear from the beginning: candor is one of the keys when dealing with a crisis. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always present.

That’s why Sunshine Week went nationwide in 2005 to remind the public of the importance of open government and educate about why it’s essential.

Open meetings and open records weren’t created just for newspapers and other media, but for the public. Laws outline when boards and commissions can close meetings and what records can’t be released to the public. North Dakota has been fortunate to have good open meetings and records laws.

Recent legislative sessions have tried to chip away at the laws. Now, the names of many job applicants remain secret until finalists are selected. The Tribune editorial board along with most media outlets believe this is a step backward.

There also have been efforts by the Legislature to weaken the initiative and referral processes. To take power away from the public and give it to legislators.

The pandemic provides a perfect example of the necessity of open government. Yes, many people are scared by the coronavirus, and some may have panicked and started hoarding. However, without the free flow of information, the public can’t make sound decisions.

In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum and other officials have strived to keep everyone informed. The situation has changed quickly, so a Friday decision to keep schools open was reversed on Sunday. There wasn’t much notice for parents, but officials took what was considered the safest approach.

Open government also benefits officials by giving the public an understanding of why certain actions are taken.

This week serves as a reminder of the importance of open government. Throughout the pandemic we should insist that government be honest with us. When the pandemic ends, the need for open government will remain essential.


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