There are still a few days left to celebrate “National Sunshine Week” which began March 16. For the past fifteen years, one week in March has been designated by the News Leaders Association to honor the importance of open government.
The name draws from the expression “Sunshine is the best of disinfectants,” attributed to Louis Brandeis, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He meant that government is improved when the public is able to see what the government is doing on its behalf. Visibility is known to expose or prevent graft, self-dealing, and plain incompetence. However, in a Town Meeting form of government like Bedford’s, it can also invite civic participation.
The current pandemic has underscored the importance of frequent, trustworthy information from public servants. Last year, as the enormity of the Covid-19 risk became apparent, the Editorial Board of the Boston Globe honored Sunshine
Week by writing: “Transparency by our public officials breeds credibility. And where there is credibility and openness and truth-telling, people will listen and will follow — and in the days ahead that may mean the difference between life and death.”
In Bedford, you will find much of the information about town government readily available on the Town’s website (www.BedfordMA.gov). There each board and committee posts their own agendas, minutes, and in some cases documents related to the meeting agenda. The Select Board and Planning Board frequently post supporting documents relating to the items on their current agenda.
In any case, when a citizen cannot locate the materials needed, they should call the office or the chair of a particular committee. Under the law, citizens have a right to these documents. Keep in mind minutes must be approved before they are distributed.
Since March 2020 meetings have been virtual due to the pandemic. A link and password to meetings are provided on the posted agenda. Recordings of past meetings are available on the Bedford TV YouTube site and links to those videos are often posted on a Board’s homepage.
Why would a resident want to read minutes or watch a video from a local board? General interest in how government works is a good reason, but interest is sharpened when it falls closer to home.
A citizen with an interest in running for an elected office or seeking appointment to one of the boards or committees can learn about the work of that department to determine how their skills and interests could contribute to the town.
Someone watching the coronavirus rate can learn more about how the numbers are compiled from the Board of Health minutes. If a house is on a non-conforming lot and the owners want to apply for a permit to build an addition, they might want to read Zoning Board of Appeals rulings on similar cases. Similarly, if a new deck might encroach on wetlands on their property the Conservation Commission records could show a homeowner the way the Commission has responded to previous requests.
Town governments also are required to adhere to the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law and the MA Public Records Law. The Open Meeting Law requires timely notification of meetings and a public agenda. The Public Record Law enables public access to public documents in whatever format. It is similar in many ways to the National Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.)
A recent addition to agendas from the Board of Health and Select Board is a “Public Comment” section. Advance notification if preferred and guidelines for public comment can be found at https://www.bedfordma.gov/select-board. In a virtual meeting, the chair can allow a guest to participate. The School Committee has had a similar item on their agenda regularly for some time.
Not by coincidence, Sunshine Week incorporates March 16 the birthday of James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution of the United States. Happy Birthday, Mr. Madison.