By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Quick and relatively inexpensive access to government documents is vital for an informed citizenry and good journalism.

After all, who really cares what a politician or a bureaucrat says in a carefully worded press release? If you want the whole story, you have to really pay attention to what that politician does.

SUNSHINE: Shine light on government secrets with open records requests.

Even better, see what he has said in private emails or memos. Find out what adjustments were made in a government contract after the original deal was signed. Or pore over what auditors found after picking through a government agency’s operations.

A state’s open records law, like the federal government’s Freedom of Information Act, gives you access to all of that. Those sunshine laws encourage transparency in government. The more journalists and citizens use these tools, the more honest a government they will create.

These records are invaluable for journalists bringing to light action that agents of the state would rather keep secret. Public records provide the foundation for investigations.

Sometimes, the cost for finding and duplicating records can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. It’s one of the most frustrating parts of the job.

But think about it. If you were allowed to operate in the shadows with no outside scrutiny, would you be more or less apt to cover up shoddy work, hire your crony friends at inflated costs for government projects or devise talking points that only match reality in some alternate dimension?

Now, if you knew some meddling citizen or reporter might be looking over your shoulder, how would you respond? For my money, it’s crucial that citizens learn their open records and FOIA laws and then use them.

For Sunshine Week, I’d like to make a proposal that you join us in keeping watch on your government.

The one thing government excels at is creating records, lots and lots of records. The law presumes those records are available for public inspection. Ask to see some of those records.

You don’t need a particular skill set to do this. It really is as simple as making a phone call or dashing off an e-mail.

Take time to ask your government agency for something, anything. It really doesn’t matter what. Ask for emails or audits or purchases or contracts. Ask for memos or disciplinary action or 911 tapes.

Just let your government — your city council, local school district, public works department — know you are watching. Who knows, perhaps you’ll stumble onto something that should be exposed to the general public.

Access to those records makes the soccer mom worried about how her school district is spending her tax dollars as powerful a threat to government secrecy as a well sourced, experienced journalist.

And just in case that soccer mom needs the help of a well sourced, experienced journalist, I am at your service.

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