Public records benefit all of us

Published 7:53 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2019

We publish all sorts of public records here at the newspaper, including some that people would prefer not to see at times.

We understand that people do not always like to show up in the list of arrests, marriages, divorces, land transactions and other records we publish. But those records are important, and maybe not for the reasons you assume.

Sure, it’s important for the public to know the details of an arrest. In some instances, it’s a matter of public safety. The same can’t be said when it comes to marriages and divorces — the public’s safety isn’t at stake.

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But the public’s access to information might be. We publish as many public records as we can so that those records remain in the “public.” If no one publishes or accesses the information, then fewer people know the information is actually public. And if fewer people know that such records are public, it’s easier for governments to restrict access to those records  — or take away access altogether.

Governments tend to push the boundaries of public information laws. It’s in their nature to restrict information, maybe from the misguided notion that the information is “theirs” and not “ours.” Public information is yours, not theirs. Any document or record produced by government belongs to the public, as does the government itself. For government to be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” it must understand that its business is public, meaning everyone should have access to it.

Does that sort of openness make government less efficient? At times. Is it burdensome? It can be. But that’s the only way it should be. A government that can function without public oversight might very well move more quickly, make more decisions and appear to be more efficient. But who is making those decisions? Who benefits? Who is making money off the deal? What’s the motivation behind the decision? How much money will be spent? How will tax dollars be used? You can’t know without public information.

We have no doubt that some people would have no problem with the government deciding that divorces are not public record. The same goes for land transactions or other property information. But if records one person finds unpopular should not be public, what about records that the next person finds objectionable? Where does it stop?

We understand the desire to not be included in the public records we publish (and we hear from many of you about the arrest report), but they serve a greater good that benefits all of us. It’s why the government decided to make them public to start with.