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West County Growth

Committee to Elect
G. James Benoit

P.O. Box 74
Crownsville, MD 21032

March 17, 2008

Our Say: Online contract access would let in more sunshine

Your mother might have been right about chicken soup, but she was wrong if she ever told you that what you don't know can't hurt you.

When it comes to government, the reverse is true - in spades. Yet, attempts to gain access to public information, especially by members of the public, are greeted by some government officials with ignorance of the state's laws - or, worse, with arrogance, even contempt.
Fortunately, Maryland is more progressive than some states in promoting transparency and in trying to make intelligible the labyrinthine rules that govern exceptions to public disclosure. But maintaining access to public information, something essential to the proper working of democratic government, demands constant vigilance.

Because of this, the media industry has a Sunshine Week each year. This week, from March 16 to 22, newspapers across the land will carry stories and editorials urging greater openness in government.

The comes during an era when electronic technology has opened the door to more opportunities than ever before for public knowledge - and more nervousness by officials uncomfortable with real-time scrutiny on the Internet, which has been dubbed by some "the Googling of government."

As if on cue, the County Council tonight will take up a bipartisan bill sponsored by council members Jamie Benoit and Cathy Vitale that would require detailed information about the recipients of every county contract over $25,000 to be posted on the county government's Web site.

The county spends about $230 million of your tax money every year for various services. You can get information on that now - by filing a formal request and waiting 30 days for it.

Posting such information online would be another step in guaranteeing more accountable government, and we hope that the rest of the council agrees with Mr. Benoit, who characterized the bill as one to let "people see in the sock drawer of government."

At times, that sock drawer has had a suspect odor, generated by questions about whether certain campaign contributors or cronies of government officials were winning lucrative contracts with suspicious frequency.

But to some critics, as Severna Park scholar Jim Snider accurately pointed out in a story in The Capital last week, such databases are only the beginning.

To make the information truly meaningful, citizens must be able to connect the dots through a series of easily searchable databases so they can cross-check those who received contracts against those who served on committees or made campaign contributions.

Of course, creating such databases will cost time and money, and right now budgets are tight. But such Sunshine laws are not for the convenience of the media, to enable them to sell more newspapers or get more viewers. They are for you - so you can better monitor your government. So how much is good government worth to you?


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