The “Sunshine Laws” meant to provide a minimal amount of transparency to government proceedings, is ritually honored at the beginning of every public meeting held by a governing body in Franklin Lakes, Wyckoff and Oakland. The law, over 30 years old, was passed in 1975 as part of NJ Gov. Brendan Byrne’s “Government Under Glass” initiative. It established the right of all citizens to have advance notice of all public meetings and the right to attend meetings at which any business affecting the public is discussed or acted upon.
On the local level, in Wyckoff, Oakland and Franklin Lakes, the “Sunshine Laws” are being followed to the letter, but not the spirit. Nine years into the 21st century, the modern methods used to share, communicate and disseminate information have been firmly established. As municipalities across the nation deal with budget concerns in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, none of the the three local municipalities have utilized the tools at hand to directly communicate with residents. Local municipal websites discuss recycling, parades, and services, but none mention a budget; none offer a proposed budget online.
The RIH School Board in contrast has put themselves on the line. Their proposed budget has been available online for weeks. Of course this is one of the rare instances where New Jersey residents can vote on a budget, and the openness of the school board is a practical requirement. Still, having to appeal to voters, make their case, and present the evidence as they see it has forced the school board to more fully embrace the spirit of openness in government.
Residents using 20th or 21st century technology to visit their local municipal website will find that Wyckoff offers the most current publication of their meeting minutes, February 6th; the town council minutes for Oakland and Franklin Lakes are three months old dating back to January. The governing bodies of all three municipalities regularly lament the difficulties in struggling to develop a budget that balances services, tax increases, and state mandates, but they offer little direct communication with their constituents. Township committees such as Wyckoff would be well served in detailing their efficiencies which can be deduced from a comparative study of local municipalities; while councils like Franklin Lakes can offer a direct explanation as to the unique financial dilemma faced by this borough.
Offline, the Sunshine Law allows municipalities to go into executive session for a variety of reasons. These are closed to the public and hence there is no understanding of what is discussed. The New Jersey Foundation for Open Government is working to encourage towns in the state to independently adopt broader definitions of transparent government, and they are meeting with some success. Some towns in the state have adopted ordinances that require the publication of the closed session minutes with the redaction of any material that is required by law, e.g. personnel issues.
President Obama made transparency in government a major theme in his election campaign, and his administration has made some symbolic gestures towards fulfilling that promise. Congress itself has moved closer to an era of openness as the infamous pork barrel earmarks now must carry a name attached. Unfortunately, Congress did not require transparency to account for the hundreds of billions of dollars being doled out to American banks and corporations, and there is no accountability as to where this taxpayer money is going. While time will tell if the new Obama administration will live up to it’s promises, the idealism exhibited in President Obama’s statement on transparency in government can certainly be implemented on a local level.
President Obama on Transparency and Open Government
Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.
Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public input on how we can increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Government.
Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector. Executive departments and agencies should solicit public feedback to assess and improve their level of collaboration and to identify new opportunities for cooperation.