It Is (Almost) Always Sunny In Newtown
For journalists and news organizations, including The Newtown Bee, March 15-21 marks “Sunshine Week” — the annual celebration of access to public information and what it means for you and your community.
Much like Newtown is fortunate to have its very own self-contained and exclusive media organization in this newspaper, this community also enjoys a tradition of having local government officials who take freedom of information pretty seriously.
While there have been a few occasions over the past couple of decades where The Newtown Bee has been forced to file an appeal with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC), these incidents are mere blips across a landscape in which dozens of Newtown boards, commissions, and committees conduct public business in thousands of meetings, hearings, and other open sessions every year.
Certainly there are a few tweaks that could propel Newtown’s solid “A” to an “A+” when it comes to public access to information, but these are mostly minor points that are addressable, if not immediately correctable. For example, Newtown’s Municipal Center council chambers — the room where many of the community’s highest level meetings take place — is not only equipped with assistive listening gear for those who are hearing impaired, but full audio/video streaming capabilities, which are utilized regularly.
That means many of the most locally relevant meetings that happen can be viewed live in real time or through archived web broadcasts in the comfort of one’s own home or via mobile device, 24/7. It is vitally important that officials who meet in this venue — and anywhere else, for that matter — be heard as well as seen as they conduct the peoples’ business.
That means properly using microphones and enunciating in a loud, clear manner when microphones are not available. Every single board, commission, or committee chair can lead by example, insisting that anyone speaking on the record does so in a way they can be clearly heard.
It is also appreciated when these same chairs ascertain that meeting notices are thorough and accurate. Unfortunately, there are a few Newtown and Borough of Newtown panels using templates for their agendas, which either occasionally or regularly fail to appropriately reflect the planned subject matter for those gatherings. On the other hand, and to the credit of their clerks, most local municipal meeting minutes typically reflect significantly more information than is required under the state FOI statutes.
Newtown officials are to be commended, as well, for the frequency with which they conduct FOI trainings for the public and public officials. That probably explains why — when it comes to citizens pressing for access for information — Newtown is nearly absent from any state FOIC hearing dockets.
So as communities like Newtown and its community news organization mark Sunshine Week 2020, its citizens can celebrate in the bright glow that highlights accessibility while remaining ever vigilant and holding local officials accountable any time shadows begin to creep into places where the peoples’ business is being done.
This guest editorial was produced by Associate Editor John Voket, a past president of the New England Newspaper & Press Association.