My mom used to have a small, three-legged wooden stool. I don't remember the stool being used for any reason, just something to set a newspaper or magazine on for a minute.
It was small and thus not sturdy enough to hold anything of weight.
But no matter if it was strong and sturdy, the three-legged stool was no good if something happened to one of the legs. It couldn't stand on just two.
You're probably already wondering what a three-legged stool has to do with the newspaper business.
Open government is a three-legged stool.
It takes open meetings.
It takes open records.
It takes public notices.
Any of the three being absent you don't really have open government.
I would wager that the news side of newspapers thinks all of government can be "open" if just its meetings and records are kept public. And I would wager an equal amount that the advertising-business side would argue without public notices, government really can't be open.
Like the old Certs breath mint ad, "Stop. You're both right." It takes all three. Together. If one of the three is missing, any one of the three, open government is off-balance.
Open meetings -- much can go on behind closed doors and much does. The law gives public agencies the right to enter into closed meetings under certain conditions. The law limits the presence of people at those meetings and nothing can be finalized. Any final action must be done in public.
Open meetings also give the citizens the right to speak on a particular subject. Much like lobbying in some respect but the comments play an important part of a public agency's decisions on most items.
Open records -- much like open meetings, most records are open. Those records can be closed to the public under certain conditions but the records are important for a variety of reasons.
Often, government records will reveal what has happened behind the scenes, with agencies trying to restrict knowledge of what has happened in certain situations. Maybe it's a financial settlement with a fired public agency employee. Maybe it's what happened in a court proceeding. Maybe it's just simple communications between agencies.
Open records are much more than that, I know, but open records are an important part of that three-legged stool.
Public notices -- these probably get overlooked when compared to open meetings and open records. Newspaper editorial departments won't understand the reason for them, why government agencies should pay to have information published. Newspaper ad departments will favor this one over open meetings and open records. Those are good but with public notices certain information has to be published and that information could be very revealing.
On their own, each is important and each plays a role in open government -- government of the people, for the people and by the people. True open government can only be open with the three-legged stool in perfect balance.
David T. Thompson,
Executive director of the Kentucky Press Association, Frankfort, Kentucky