Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Columbian and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
There is no telling whether the weather will live up to the name, but Monday marked the beginning of Sunshine Week. Rather than serving as a reference to our meteorological side, the annual observation highlights the importance of open government and celebrates the free flow of information.
As if we needed a reminder of the role such things play in a democracy, Washington legislators recently provided one. When lawmakers passed a bill to exempt themselves from provisions in the state’s public-disclosure law, the public took note. Newspapers decried the action, and nearly 20,000 citizens contacted the office of Gov. Jay Inslee to express opposition. The governor vetoed the bill, and lawmakers agreed to work with media outlets to devise a solution.
The issue provided a miniature civics lesson for Washington residents and brought to the forefront the necessity of an informed public. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “No one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do, and none has greater confidence in its effect towards supporting free and good government.”
Washington residents long have worked toward that spread of information regarding the actions of their government. In 1971, the Legislature passed a law defining “public records,” and in 1972 voters overwhelmingly approved the Public Records Act. The impetus is a belief that in order for the people to hold their government accountable — often with assistance from the media — they must have access to what that government is doing behind the scenes.
This is particularly important in an era when the president frequently chides the media and has called a free press “the enemy of the American people.” Such exhortations are anathema to the notion of democracy. There is a reason, after all, that the Founding Fathers codified “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of free speech, or of the press.” There is a reason they included it in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
As Mizell Stewart III wrote last year for USA Today: “Now, more than ever, Americans are urged to recognize the importance of open government to a robust democracy. Access to meetings, minutes and records of our elected and appointed representatives — and to those officials themselves — is a key element of the constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. It is not strictly for the benefit of the news media.”
Instead, it is for the benefit of the public, and it is crucial to holding accountable officials ranging from local school boards to the President of the United States. For example, if a legislator is considering a bill regarding gun control, the public has a right to know if that lawmaker is meeting with gun-rights activists — or gun-control activists. If a lawmaker is considering school funding, the public should know if its representative is exchanging emails with representatives of teachers’ unions — or anti-union activists.
That is the crux of Sunshine Week, and it lies at the heart of open government. Each day, The Columbian and other news outlets serve as a conduit between the government and the people, providing information as mundane as birth announcements or as essential as how government is spending tax money. In the process, the media allows the public to make informed decisions about their governance.
And, so, we celebrate Sunshine Week. We celebrate a system that recognizes the importance of an informed populace, and we remember the adage that sunshine is the best disinfectant.
Problems in VA health care can’t continue
If veterans are America’s top priority — as presidents and members of Congress, in both political parties, tell us over and over — then why haven’t the problems with medical care at Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities been fixed?
It’s puzzling, and very frustrating.
Last week, yet another report was released regarding the pattern of failure at the VA.
“A stinging internal investigation finds ‘failed leadership at multiple levels’ at the Veterans (Affairs)during the Obama administration that put patients at a major hospital at risk,” The Associated Press reported. “It’s another blow to current Secretary David Shulkin, who also served at the agency then and now is fighting to keep his job.”
The 150-page report released by the VA Inspector General’s Office offers new details to its preliminary finding last April of patient safety issues at the medical center in Washington, D.C. Shulkin acknowledged to reporters that the problems were “systemic,” according to AP, but said he was not aware of the issues at the Washington hospital.
He then pledged change across the VA. We’ve heard that before — and more than once.
Shulkin, who was elevated to VA secretary last year by President Donald Trump, told government investigators that he did “not recall” ever being notified of problems. Shulkin was undersecretary of health during the Obama administration starting in 2015. The report found that at least three VA program offices directly under Shulkin’s watch knew of “serious, persistent deficiencies.”
While the Inspector General’s report did not make specific conclusions on whether Shulkin actually was warned by direct subordinates, it broadly faulted an “unwillingness or inability of leaders to take responsibility for the effectiveness of their programs and operations,” and cited a “sense of futility” at multiple levels in bringing about improvements.
One would think that with scrutiny from Congress and the White House, as well as the public, far more progress would have been made over the past decade.
Things need to get better quickly. President Trump and Congress need to take this report as a call to even stronger action.
We, as a nation, owe those who fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea and elsewhere the very best medical care available. Funding the military isn’t just about buying missiles and airplanes, but making sure those who are wounded in battle can get the care they need to recover to live a full and productive life.
The excuses must end.